How Much Time Should a Pastor Spend Preparing a Sermon?

I like to joke that as a pastor I only work one day a week, but the truth is that on average most pastors work 50-60 hours a week. This time is spent managing, planning, corresponding – and of course: studying and preparing a sermon.

Sermon preparation can take a lot of time, especially for a perfectionist. I know that I have often certainly spent an inordinate amount of time preparing my sermons before; partly because I consider it a high and holy calling to preach and teach the Word of God, and also because it is something I enjoy doing and I want to do it well, in a way that truly honors God and impacts peoples’ lives.

So how much time should a preacher spend on preparing a sermon?

I heard one well-known pastor say once at a conference that he only spent about four hours per week preparing his message. He then added that this is because he has a team of people who do all of his research for him, and he takes the material they bring him and organizes it into a message. Most pastors don’t have this luxury, nor would they want someone else doing their studying for them.

A friend of mine who pastors a small church told me that he spends 30 hours per week preparing for his Sunday message. He also has a midweek service, for which he prepares about 15 hours. The result of that is that he doesn’t have time for anything else except sermon preparation. In other words: he doesn’t have any time left over to be a pastor (Greek for “shepherd”) to his congregation. He is only a preacher. Particularly in smaller congregations, it is important that a pastor not only be a preacher, but a shepherd, and he and I both agreed that his time allocation in this area was more of a detriment than a blessing to his congregation.

As for myself, in addition to my regular duties as a pastor, I have a wife and young children who I like spending time with, and in the past few months I have taken on hosting a live radio show once a week and I’m studying for my Masters, which requires about 16 hours of my attention every week. All this means that I need to be good at managing my time well, not only for my own benefit, but for the benefit of my family and my church.

8 Hours or Less: Writing faithful sermons faster by [Huguley, Ryan]

So I was intrigued a few weeks ago when a friend recommended this book: 8 Hours or Less: Writing Faithful Sermons Faster by Ryan Huguley.  It sounded a bit gimmicky to me at first, but after reading it, I think it’s a great resource that I would recommend. Basically, in the book, he outlines a plan for your week, which has you doing certain tasks each day for an hour or two, which help you focus and write better sermons faster. I think that’s really key; it’s not hard to write sermons faster – the question is if they will be good sermons. The system he lays out is intended not only to improve the speed, but also the quality of sermons.

One part which was foreign to me is that on Tuesdays he has you study the text and review your outline with a small group of people. This is probably the part I was most hesitant about, but the part which I have enjoyed the most.

If the end result is better sermons and more time for a pastor to spend pastoring people,  leading the church and preparing for the future, and having more time for their families, that’s a win-win-win. I recommend this book whole-heartedly.

Mission & Mental Health

I recently finished reading Sebastian Junger’s book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.

It was recommended to me by someone at White Fields, who had read the book and found a surprising correlation between something I had taught at church and the main thesis of the book.

The sermon was one I had taught in our Church Matters series on the topic of “Mission.” (Audio of that message here: “So That They May Have Joy”). My text was John 17:13-19, where Jesus prays over his disciples at the end of the last supper. In that prayer, he says that he was given a mission by the father, and now – in order that his disciples might have his joy in fullness – Jesus is giving them his mission.

The point is: there is a correlation between mission and joy. Mission is a prerequisite for joy. If you want to experience joy, you need to have a mission. Without a mission, you can’t have joy.

This truth can be seen in the fact that children, when they think about what they want to be when they grow up, they think of their future vocation in terms of mission: they dream not of being office workers, they dream of being teachers, police officers, firefighters, missionaries, astronauts, doctors, veterinarians, etc. In other words: jobs full of adventure and serving other people. Why? Because they find joy in that.

And yet, our society encourages us to look out for ourselves, be practical, don’t bother trying to “save the world” – just worry about yourself. And here’s the irony of that: the more that you focus on yourself, the less significant your life is in the big picture, and the less joy you will have.

This same point is made by Sebastian Junger in Tribe. His big idea, which he backs up with evidence throughout the book, is that hardship, rather than being bad for us, is actually good for us – in fact, it’s one of the best things that can possibly happen to a person or a society.

And yet, the whole focus of our society has been to make life more and more comfortable and free of hardship; the result of which has been an incredible rise in mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and even violent crime. Times of crisis, such as terror attacks and natural disasters, indirectly have a positive affect on mental health in a society. The reason for this is that crisis causes people to band together and gives people a mission and a purpose to work towards and fight for, even sacrifice for. Without such a mission, people become unhealthy.

In other words: Junger is stating what the Bible has said for millennia: you need a mission. It’s a basic human requirement.

Here are some quotes from the book:

Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. (xvii)

According to a global survey by the World Health Organization, people in wealthy countries suffer depression at as much as 8 times the rate they do in poor countries, and people in countries with large income disparities– like the United States– run a much higher lifelong risk of developing severe mood disorders. (p. 20)

[Poorer people experience lower rates of depression.] The reason for this seems to be that poor people are forced to share their time and resources more than wealthy people are, and as a result they live in closer communities. Financial independence can lead to isolation, and isolation can put people at a greatly increased risk of depression and suicide. (p. 20 – 21)

Modern society seems to emphasize extrinsic values (money, possessions, status) over intrinsic ones (sense of purpose, competence, moral/ethical/spiritual conviction), and as a result, mental health issues rise along with growing wealth. (p. 22)

Speaking of the extremely close bonds created by hardship in danger, “We are not good to each other. Our tribalism is to an extremely narrow group of people: our children, our spouse, maybe our parents is alienating, technical, cold, and mystifying. Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that.” (p. 94)

The last time United States experienced a significant period of unity was briefly after the terrorist attacks of September 11. There were no rampage shootings for the next two years. The effect was particularly pronounced in New York City, where rates of violent crime, suicide, and psychiatric disturbances dropped immediately in many countries, antisocial behavior is known to decline during wartime. New York suicide rate dropped by about 20% in the six months following the attacks, the murder rate dropped by 40%, and pharmacist saw no increase in the number of first-time patients filling prescriptions for anti-anxiety and antidepressant medication. (p. 115-116)

I agree with Junger’s thesis and much (not all) of his analysis, but – unsurprisingly – he does not give a solution. The only part of Junger’s analysis which I disagree with is that he chalks everything up to human evolution, whereas I, as a Christian, believe that the need for mission is part of God’s design in creating us. That aside, the main idea of the book is absolutely correct – and the Bible has been teaching these things for millennia, AND giving the solution!

In fact, there are so many verses in the Bible which relate to this subject, that I only have space here for a few:

But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.
But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. (1 Timothy 6:9-12)

we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)

Furthermore, in Christ, we have been given a mission – THE mission – which really matters and is worth living for and dying for and sacrificing for, and all of us are called to play a role in it – no matter what our vocation. It is the only mission which ultimately matters; it is the only mission which will ultimately save the world, and we have full confidence that it will succeed, because we’ve already been told how the story ends…

In order to have joy, you need a mission. Embrace Jesus and get engaged in his mission.

And a final thought: How did Jesus design his mission to be accomplished? Through the church. That’s one of the reasons why church matters… to God, to you, and to the world.

Racism is Not Merely a Matter of Ignorance

We had a great time taking church outside this past Sunday!

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One of the things I heard was that people in the nearby buildings came out and listened to the worship and the sermon from their balconies.

Every Sunday we invite people at White Fields to text or tweet us abut the sermon as a way of interacting. Someone sent this text message in response to this past Sunday’s sermon from the Church Matters series on the topic of the gospel:

Could you please share with me what you said about racism in the sermon today? I had never heard it put that way, and I found it very insightful.

It was during the section where I was talking about what the gospel does, that it gives you a new status before God.

Here’s that text from my notes:

The gospel transforms the way you think about yourself and about other people.
As long as you are still trying to justify yourself, you will always be looking for reasons why you are better than other people. That’s what the first guy in Jesus’ story (Luke 18:9-14) did. He prayed: “Thank you God, that I am not like other people! Thank you that I am better than other people, like this TAX COLLECTOR for example! I’m a much better person than He is!”

That kind of attitude leads to things like racism, prejudice and condescension.

Everyone wants to feel that they have value and worth, and one of the main ways that people try to find value and worth is by looking for ways that they can believe they have an edge up on others — so they can feel better about themselves. What they’re ultimately looking for is justification! And it makes you feel like you have value and worth if you can look at other people and say: I’m better than them!

This is where many people find their identity: in looking at other people and convincing themselves that they are superior for whatever reason.

But when you understand the gospel, you no longer have the need to prove yourself, to justify yourself or try to build an identity or a resume by which to make yourself acceptable. Because the message of the gospel is that God has justified you in Christ, and in Him, He has given you an identity and has accepted you. When you understand that on your own merits, you are completely bankrupt before God, and yet God loves you with a greater love than you could have ever dreamed of — not because you earned it or deserved it, but simply because of who HE is and because HE loves you — and through Jesus, He acted to make you His own, and to transform you into His child!

When you really understand the Gospel, it makes you, on the one hand, incredibly HUMBLE (because you recognize that you aren’t actually any better than anyone else) — and at the same time it makes you incredibly CONFIDENT! (Because you know that you are completely loved and accepted by the one being in the universe whose opinion really matters! Because in Christ, God looks at you and says: You are my child, in whom I am well pleased.

And therefore, the gospel enables you to be incredibly confident — without being the least bit condescending towards others, because you no longer derive your value and worth from being better than other people, but from God’s love for you and the identity He has given you in Christ.

I actually wrote this before the events that took place on Saturday in Charlottesville, VA. I am deeply grieved by what happened there and my heart goes out to the family of Heather Heyer, the woman who died, as well as to the people who were injured and their families.

Here’s the thing we need to understand as Christians: Many people in our culture say that racism is a matter of ignorance. “If people were only less ignorant,” they argue, “then they wouldn’t be racist.” Yet what the Bible teaches is that racism isn’t merely a matter of ignorance, it is a matter of the heart.

We saw this very thing in our recent study of Jonah. Jonah was racist, and he assumed that God shared his views, and he was shocked to find out that God did not. Jonah’s problem was not ignorance; it was a heart issue! He did not share the heart of God, which was love for all people of all nations.

That racism is not merely a matter of ignorance should be clear from the fact that the majority racist movements of the twentieth century (Fascism and Naziism) took place in some of the most highly educated countries in the world. The German Nazis were not ignorant, and yet they were very racist. Racism isn’t merely a matter of ignorance, it’s a matter of the heart.

Racism is a sin which the gospel reveals and heals. Racism, as I said on Sunday, is a means of self-justification. Racism is completely incompatible with Christianity. God loves the world, and so should we. Jesus died to save people of every tribe, tongue and nation and to make them all ONE in Him.

Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:11)

Does Forgiving Mean Forgetting?

Recently at White Fields I have been teaching a series on the Parables of Jesus and this past Sunday we looked at the two parables of the Two Debtors in Luke 7:36-50 and Matthew 18:23-35. (Click here to listen to the audio of that message)

Both of these parables deal with the topic of forgiveness; the first is focused on how God’s forgiveness of us affects how we relate to God, the second is about how God’s forgiveness of us affects how we relate to others.

The second parable is about a man who owes a massive debt to the king: 10,000 Talents.

A talent was a measurement of money which was equivalent to 20 years wages for a laborer. You can do the math: let’s say a laborer’s wage here in the US is $30,000/year. 1 Talent would be $600,000. This guy owed 10,000 Talents — which would be 6 billion dollars!

However, the king had mercy on him and forgave him his debt.

The men then went out and found someone who owed him 100 Denarii (about $10,000 using the above calculation). That man he demanded pay him back immediately, and when the man asked for mercy (just as he had from the king), he showed him no mercy. He choked him and then had him bound and thrown in debtor’s prison – a terrible fate from which there was no way out.

Upon hearing about this, the king brings the man in, scolds him and calls him “wicked”, then informs him that he will not be forgiven of his debt after all, and he will also be put in debtor’s prison, presumably for the rest of his life.
The parable ends with these words: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:35)

The message is clear: if you have been forgiven by God, there is no excuse for you withholding forgiveness from someone who has wronged you or hurt you in some way. In fact, the most severe warning is given to those who do refuse to forgive others.

So forgiveness is a big deal. A really big deal.

Why do people hesitate to forgive others? I think one of the reasons is because there is a lot of confusion about what forgiveness is and what it isn’t, and what it means to forgive.

One of the biggest misunderstandings about forgiveness — is that forgiving means forgetting: acting like what happened never happened.

That might be easy to do if it is a minor offense — but there are some things, such as major traumas, which people do not know how to forget, even if they wanted to. Furthermore, sometimes the expectation that forgiving means forgetting can be unwise and even dangerous.

For example: When I was pastoring in Hungary, there was a person from the US who wanted to work with us as a missionary — specifically, he wanted to work with youth, because we had a large youth outreach. BUT: he had recently gotten out of jail, and the reason he was in jail was because he had committed sexual assault against a… (you guessed it) youth.
In the US he wasn’t allowed to be around youth but in Hungary those laws didn’t apply. So, we told him: “Sorry, you can’t work with youth because of your past.” His response was: “Hey, I did my time, I repented. If my past sins are forgiven and forgotten by God, then why are you making an issue of it?”
Of course our prerogative was to protect the kids. And it’s just common sense not to put a person with a history of sexual assault against kids, together with a bunch of kids.

The thing is, this person would point to Bible verses like Hebrews 8:12 — where God says: “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
Or Isaiah 43:25, where God says to Israel, “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”

So…isn’t “not remembering” the same as “forgetting”?
Actually, no! It’s not!

When the Bible talks about God “REMEMBERING” something — it doesn’t mean that He forgot about it, and then remembered it, like: “I can’t remember where I put my keys.” Or “I forgot where I put my phone and then I remembered.”

When the Bible talks about God “remembering” something, what it means is that God focused his attention on someone or something in a given moment for a particular purpose.

For example: throughout the Old Testament, it says over and over: God remembered Noah. God remembered Abraham. God remembered Rachel. God remembered the covenant that He had made with Israel.

Does that mean that God was like: “Oh yeah — Abraham! I totally forgot about that guy!” Or “Oh yeah — I totally forgot about that covenant I made with Israel! Thanks for reminding me!” No. It means that in that moment, God turned his focus and attention to those people or that thing.

Notice that even the king in this parable remembered the amount of the debt he had forgiven the servant.

When it says that God remembers our sins no more, it doesn’t mean that He erases them from His memory — what it means that He will never focus on them again. He’ll never hold them over our heads or throw them in our face.

The message of the Gospel is that Jesus took your record or wrongs, and took his record of rights — and he scratched out the names on the top and wrote his name on your record and wrote your name on his record, and then he took the judgment before God that your record deserved.

What that means is that from a legal perspective, God has cleared our record and made it like we never sinned. But that doesn’t mean that He, as an omniscient God, has forgotten about them. One of the best verses about this topic is Isaiah 38:17, “for you have cast all my sins behind your back.” In other words: God has chosen to not look on them any more.

Many people struggle to forgive others, because they have been given this misconception that forgiving someone means that they have to forget about what happened to them and act like it never happened.
Maybe even you have experienced things which can’t be erased from your memory. Please understand that just because you can’t forget that something happened, doesn’t mean that you can’t forgive the person who did it to you.

Furthermore, forgiveness and trust are two separate things. Proverbs 14:15 says: “The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps.”

A lot of people confuse forgiveness and trust, and some people are unwilling to forgive, because they’re not ready to trust that person again. On the other hand, some people expect that if someone has forgiven them that they should automatically trust them again. That’s not true, in fact in some cases it would be very unwise — like in the case I mentioned above.

So, what is forgiveness then?

Forgiveness is: Not seeking your own revenge.

It means no longer holding onto the thing which happened to you, but giving it over to God.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t seek justice if it’s a legal matter. In fact, in some cases, seeking legal justice is the best and most loving thing you can do, because it might be preventing that person from hurting another person in the way that they hurt you.
But even if you seek legal justice, to forgive someone means you are not vindictive! You let go of the desire to hurt that person back because they hurt you.

Forgiveness means: Not being consumed by the past.

Some people are hesitant to forgive, because they feel like if they forgive that person who hurt them, and they let it go — then that person got away with what they did! — as if by forgiving them, they’re saying that what that person did was okay!
But it’s important that we understand that forgiveness isn’t about exonerating the person who hurt you nor trivializing what they did, or saying it was okay — it’s about you letting go of that thing, and not letting it consume your life, not being angry or resentful towards that person, but trusting God that He has or will deal with it justly in the end.

The promise we have in Jesus is that God hasn’t just swept sins and wrongdoings, evils and injustices under the proverbial rug, but He has dealt with every single one of them fully and justly in the person of Jesus Christ. And it is in the light of that, knowing that it has been dealt with by God in Christ, that we can forgive receive forgiveness joyful and show forgiveness to others.

Was Paul Suicidal?

Recently at White Fields I have been teaching through Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in a study titled, The Pursuit of Happiness.

This past Sunday I taught on Paul’s famous saying: “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” – and I explained how the gospel gives new meaning to our lives and it redefines what death means for us. Audio of that message can be found here.

In that sermon, I didn’t get to what Paul says after that famous phrase. Here’s the rest:

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again. (Philippians 1:21-26)

A reader of this blog sent me a message this week about this passage:

I have always wondered if Paul was experiencing a period of depression when he wrote this epistle. What he says in verse 1:22, “yet what I shall choose I cannot tell” even makes me consider that he was in some ways considering “suicide”. I know that sounds preposterous, and I’m not suggesting that he actually thought of killing himself but rather maybe purposely doing something that would result in his death. In todays world it might be called “suicide-by-cop”. It seems as he continues through the remainder of the chapter that he convinces himself that it is better to remain for the benefit of others. It could be that he was just experiencing a time when his death seemed imminent and he was preparing the readers for that eventuality, but I think that he was experiencing a great amount of stress during this time. As always, he was able, through the Spirit, to overcome his stress and turn it into a beautiful, encouraging letter. I believe it probable that all men of great faith experience times of doubt or fear brought on by the enemy.

That’s an interesting thought. Certainly Paul was facing dire circumstances, and I fully agree with the final sentence, but I wouldn’t go so far as to agree that Paul might have been having suicidal thoughts – even to the degree of doing something that might provoke someone else to kill him.

To me, the tone of the letter is one of triumph in the face of harsh circumstances, even death.

I believe that what’s going through Paul’s mind as he writes those words is that he wants to explain something important to the Philippians: That although as Christians, the ultimate hope of the Gospel is the hope of eternal life in paradise with God, that should never minimize the purpose that God has for our lives here on Earth.

This seems to have been a problem amongst some of the early Christians. 2 Thessalonians was written, in part, to let the Christians know that Jesus had not yet returned, that the Parausia, the Second Coming, was still to come – but that as we await Jesus’ imminent return, we should not be inactive;  we should still work hard. That’s why he says:

If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (2 Thessalonians 3:10-12)

The context of that, is that the Thessalonians were eagerly expecting the return of Jesus any day – as all early Christians did, and as it seems that Jesus intended all Christians to do, which is the reason for his vagueness about when his return will take place.

The point is this: We should not have a Christianity in which we encourage people to just believe in Jesus and then hang on and wait for death! I think Paul wanted to Philippians to understand that: that Christianity isn’t only about going to heaven when you die, it’s about living this life for Christ – as much as, and as long as possible.

It’s not only that because of the Gospel, DEATH IS GAIN – but also: because of the Gospel, TO LIVE IS CHRIST!

Another reason why I think Paul was not discouraged when he wrote to the Philippians is because he closes the letter by saying:

Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household. (Philippians 4:21-22)

What this means is that members of Caesar’s household, including the Praetorian Guard (members of which were chained to Paul 24 hrs a day in 6 hr shifts), were becoming Christians through his being there in jail. I think Paul was feeling particularly encouraged after facing years of discouragement prior to this. Finally he was starting to see some fruit and the purpose for which God must have allowed this series of terrible difficulties and injustices happen to him. Many of us may never get to see that in our difficulties, but when we do it helps to encourage us that God is indeed in control and using all of the frayed strands to create a beautiful tapestry.

 

Worst Sermon Ever

On Saturday night I was struck with a feeling that I have from time to time: that my sermon for Sunday was not good. I was convinced it was one of my worst sermons ever.

As I looked it over I thought: My exegesis and hermeneutics are good, I’m presenting the Gospel and talking about how the Gospel speaks to all of life…  The essential elements were in place, so what was I worried about?

Maybe I was just tired from the long drive back from California, maybe I was just feeling that the final draft wasn’t like the way I originally envisioned the message. But I went to church on Sunday morning asking God more than usual to speak through me, even through this message.

This isn’t the first time I’ve felt this way. But here’s the irony: it seems that every time I feel this way, convinced that my sermon – although it has all the right elements – is not my best, God seems to use it in an extra special way.

This Sunday, through this message, I had more than one person respond to my invitation to give their life to Jesus and make a decision for him. Another person told my wife that it was the best sermon I had ever preached. I got several emails and text messages after church about the message from people saying they were encouraged and blessed by it.  Here’s the audio of that message.

On a previous occasion, where I specifically remember telling my wife that my sermon was going to be my worst ever, I preached a message which again someone afterwards told me was my best ever, and now has also become one of my favorite sermons as well. When it recently aired on our radio program on GraceFM, we had several people contact our church asking for copies of it. A newer member of our church ran across that message a week or so ago and shared it on Facebook, and then wrote me that if I preached that message every Sunday, he would come – it was the best sermon he’d ever heard in his life. Here’s the audio of that message.

What should I make of this?

I heard Timothy Keller say once in a lecture to pastors about preaching, that we should always seek to prepare “Good Sermons” – meaning that we should make sure all the essential elements are in there: good exegesis and hermeneutics, good presentation of the Gospel and of Jesus as the answer to all the riddles, that they are “Good”. Our job is to prepare “Good Sermons” – because only God can make a sermon “Great” – and that happens, when the Holy Spirit takes our “Good Sermons” and makes them “Great” in the hearts and minds of our hearers. If we try to make “Great Sermons” we will be trying too hard to do something that only God can do.

When I heard him say that, I agreed in theory that he was right, but more and more I am experiencing the reality myself. God likes to glorify Himself, and it’s less about me that I am inclined to think. Praise God for that.

What Makes for Good Preaching?

What differentiates good preaching from mediocre preaching?

Surely you know it when you hear it, but it can’t be just a subjective thing – there must be some criteria that differentiate good preaching from not-as-good preaching.

I recently heard Timothy Keller differentiate between good preaching and great preaching. He said that “good preaching” is the altar and that “great preaching” is when God brings the fire upon the altar. In other words: preachers shouldn’t strive to preach “great” sermons, but should work to preach “good” sermons – because only God can take a “good” sermon and by the power of the Holy Spirit make it a “great” sermon within the hearer.

So what makes for good preaching?

Here are some thoughts:

  • A good sermon, no matter what text it is preached from, has to preach the Gospel. Just as every town in England has a road which leads from it to London, every text in the Bible has a road from it which leads to Christ. If all the Scriptures ultimately point to Him, a good sermon must preach the Good News of Jesus Christ.
  • Yet, a good sermon must be faithful to the text. It must not manipulate the text to simply be a “proof text” to back up the point that the speaker wants to make; it must be true exegesis, which determines what the author, and God through the author, intended to communicate through that text.
  • Furthermore, good preaching is an art form – it must be informative, it must be touching emotionally, and it must be moving inspirationally.  I heard Timothy Keller say that when you are preaching, people should be taking notes, but when you get to the part of your sermon that is about Jesus, you should seek to portray him as so captivating that people can’t help but stop taking notes when you talk about Him, and when they leave, they should leave wanting to do something because of what they’ve heard.
  • Another friend of mine – and an elder at White Fields Church – put it this way:
    • In our conversation he even put it this way: “A good sermon takes you to a place you’ve never been before, or it takes you to a place that is so intimate that you are emotionally moved”

What do you think?  What are other essential elements of “good” preaching? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

When God Says “No”

One of the things we’ve been doing at White Fields Church is giving people the opportunity to text or tweet us questions during the sermon.

Yesterday morning I taught 2 Samuel ch 7, which is the time when David had a desire to build a house for the Lord, but God said “No!”  That has some interesting implications, because what David wanted to do was a good thing, and it was a biblical thing – yet God said “no”.

This question was texted in during that sermon:

This morning in the sermon, you discussed having a desire to be a missionary, pastor, etc. If we have that desire in our hearts, didn’t God put that there? So why would He close The door if He put that desire there?

That is a great question!  The first question is a particularly important one: Did God put that desire there?  I believe that as we get closer to the heart of God – delighting ourselves in the Lord, as David said (Psalm 37:4) – that our desires are changed and become more aligned with His desires. 

In the story we studied yesterday in 2 Samuel 7: David had a desire. It was a good, noble desire – it was even a Biblical desire. Did God put that desire there? Maybe! Or maybe not. We don’t know for sure. There is a way in which we could argue that God did put that desire in David’s heart – but that David’s role in fulfilling that was not to be directly involved in the building of the temple, but indirectly – as we saw, how David got the ball rolling with the building of the temple and had all of the items made which would be used in the temple.

Let me share an example from my own life: I gave my life to the Lord when I was 16, and almost immediately I developed a desire to minister to the people of the former Soviet Union, specifically Ukraine, where my family had immigrated from. When I was 18, I was invited to go on a ministry trip to Budapest, Hungary – to a conference for Calvary Chapel churches from Hungary and Ukraine. It was the Ukrainian part which I was interested in, and I went there with the hope that I could connect with some ministries in Ukraine. I was able to do that, but interestingly all of the “doors of opportunity” for me to serve in Ukraine seemed closed, however there was an incredible open door and an invitation for me to serve in Debrecen, Hungary – the pastor there told me he had been praying for someone exactly like me to come and work with them. I had no real desire to go to Hungary, my desire was to serve the Lord in Ukraine – but I prayed about it and came to the conviction that this is what God had for me at that point, and after serving there for a little while I could move to Ukraine, where I really desired to be. I committed to go to Debrecen, Hungary for 8 months. During those 8 months, I prayed for Ukraine constantly, I even tried to go to Ukraine to work with some of the people I had met the year before at the conference in Budapest, but once again all the doors of opportunity were closed!  My feeling was: God, why did you give me this desire to serve you in Ukraine, and then close all the doors before me?!  Yet, in the meantime, I had become very proficient in Hungarian and was involved in some very exciting and fruitful ministry in Hungary. I came to see that perhaps God had given me that desire to serve Him in Ukraine in order to get me to pray and to get me to Hungary – which hadn’t even been on my radar, but which ended up being the “land of blessing” for me, where I met my future wife, where I became a pastor, where my 3 kids were born, where I was involved in years of fruitful and wonderful ministry. Was it God who put that desire to serve Him in Ukraine in my heart? I’m not sure. But He certainly used that desire in my life to lead me to where He wanted me to be.

My desire to serve the Lord in Ukraine never went away; I still have it. But I have come to rest in believing that God gave me that desire not in order to move me to Ukraine, but so that I would carry the people of that country on my heart and pray for them, and support what God is doing through other people there – which is exactly what I strive to do! This desire to serve the Lord in Ukraine led me to start taking teams from our church in Eger up to a Hungarian-speaking region of Ukraine, where we would do evangelism and support ministries in that region. I also had the opportunity to take extended trips to Ukraine and teach in a Bible school there. Who knows what God has for the future, but I very much can relate to David – who, although he was not allowed to be directly involved in the building of the temple, found a way to still be involved in it in a signifiant and meaningful way, indirectly.

So, to the question: If you have a desire to be a pastor, missionary, etc. – did God put it there? If so, why would he then shut the door?    I think that 2 Samuel 7 shows us that even if God is the one who put that noble desire in your heart to serve the Lord in a particular way, perhaps the fulfillment of that desire is not found in you fulfilling the role you specifically have in mind – perhaps the fulfillment of that desire will come in a way that is completely from God, and has a greater impact, even in your own life, than you could have ever imagined.

Every Single Day

There are certain messages that you hear, which you never forget. I remember hearing Jon Courson speak at a missions conference in Austria in the early 2000’s. I don’t remember much of what he said, but I do remember this phrase, which he repeated several times:

Read your Bible and pray,
every single day.

Novel concept for a group of missionaries and pastors, right? 

Well, it is actually. Because one rut that preachers and Bible teachers in particular tend to fall into is that of only reading your Bible to look for something to preach on or teach about: “sermon material” if you will. 

What I have found is that when I read the Bible purely to hear from the Lord and delight in His Word, it keeps me so fresh and alive as a Christian, that it makes me a better minister.

For example, yesterday I was reading through 2 Chronicles, and I read chapters 20-23. That’s one of those sections of the Bible that people like to skip over, because it’s full of hard to pronounce names and stories that are downright confusing – because it’s never clear who the “good guy” really is (hint: the only “good guy” in the story is GOD himself!).

After reading those passages, I went to meet with a brother from our church, and it just so happened that the very chapters I had read spoke directly to what he was going through in his life – in a way that was actually quite moving. And it wasn’t just one thing – it was several things from various stories in those 4 chapters. If I hadn’t been reading through the Word consistently, I’m sure I would have had something to share with this brother, but it wouldn’t have been so alive and prophetic as this was.

Another thing I remember Jon Courson saying: 

Wherever you are in the Word, that’s where you are.

That was basically Jon’s way of saying that in the providence of God, the scriptures you will read as you read through the Bible will often apply directly to the situation you are in. I have found that to be very true. 

May we never be people who only look to God’s word for “material” that we can USE in speaking to others. May we come to it always as the fountain of life.  But if you do that, you will also find that when you hide His Word in your heart, you will have plenty of “material” to share with others. 

The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life, turning a person from the snares of death. – Proverbs 14:27

The Interactive Sermon

The past 2 Sundays at White Fields we’ve been trying something new, where our background slide invites people to text or tweet their questions in during the sermon. Once we get these questions, I will answer some during the service if we have time, or I will answer them on The City – our church’s in-house social network.

The response we’ve gotten to this has been really good! I’ve really enjoyed engaging with people and answering their questions. You can read some of those discussions here. Look for the posts titled “Sermon Follow-Up”.

I think that in this day and age, with the proliferation of the internet especially, sermons need to be more interactive. Finding the right way to do this though, is what is hard.

Timothy Keller, at his Sunday night services in NYC, has had a question and answer time for years. It’s a main part of the service – and it invites skeptics to come and do what New Yorkers do best: be skeptical and inquisitive. Tim Keller has said that the average young adult in New York is a thinker and thinkers have questions, and if you want them to really consider Christianity, you have to give them a chance to have their questions answered.

Nowadays, any news article you read online gives readers the option to engage in a comments section, where they can have a discussion about the content of the article. Any attitude in churches of “don’t question anything” is completely disconnected from where our culture is at today, especially with young people. Furthermore, I feel that if pastors are not answering the real questions that people are asking and struggling with, if we are not addressing the issues that people are really wondering about and discussing, then we have become irrelevant talking heads. If everywhere in the world there is transparency and discussion is encouraged, but at church we have smokescreens and we don’t like questions, what does that communicate to people? Perhaps that we lack the confidence that is required to allow people to ask questions? That shouldn’t be the case.

However, the danger in opening up to engagement like this, is that it inevitably gives a platform to haters – people who don’t have sincere questions, but who ask questions in order to be critical or in an attempt to trip others up. This is something that Jesus dealt with a lot from the Pharisees and Sadducees, who put a lot of effort into tripping him up. I’m sure that Timothy Keller gets tons of people like this as well, but it doesn’t deter him from encouraging people to ask questions and give him the chance to offer a biblical answer.

What are your thoughts on encouraging engagement with sermons? How have you seen it done effectively – or ineffectively?