About Tim Bridges

Tim Bridges is pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, St. John's, Newfoundland (www.calvary-baptist.net). He is married to Krisy and they have four children.

The Tourist and the Local

In 2006 my wife and I moved our little family to Edinburgh.  We lived there for three years while I was in grad school.  When we first walked the streets of that beautiful city we could not have looked more out of place.

For one thing, we had tans.

We hailed from a Florida suburb where people believe that all castles belong to the Walt Disney estate.  So, our early expeditions through storied Edinburgh were marked with wonder.  An actual, free-range, castle sat right by our church, plain as day!  Excitement over the “discovery” dominated our chats with locals, who had beheld that majestic structure so often that they were reportedly

“… sick of hearing about it, Tim.”

We boarded city buses like they were alien spacecraft: “Look honey!  There’s a whole upstairs!”   We gushed at the cool local accent, assuming that Floridians possess the pristine speech of Eden.  Our well-worn city map unfurled in the wind like a creased flag.  We claimed sidewalks in the name of tourism.

Fortunately, we were not alone.  Tourists lay siege to Edinburgh, especially in the summer.  But over time we felt ourselves identifying more with the locals than with newcomers.  In fact, familiarity with the city meant that we could spot tourists immediately.  The tell-tale sign?

Tourists look up.  Locals look down.

Tourists can barely command their shuffling feet because their child-like minds are rapt in wonder at the shiny lights around them.  The locals keep their eyes to the ground, deftly traversing familiar paths.

We also learned that both tourists and locals have their charms and they actually need each other.  There would be no city to tour without the locals and the city would be less vibrant if tourists never came.  Edinburgh runs as much on the tourists’ wonder as it does on the locals’ confidence.

Brace yourself for the abrupt transition:

The “tourist” wonder and “local” confidence belong in sermon preparation as well.  They represent two approaches that work together to yield a healthy appreciation for the text.

The Wonder of the Tourist:

When I do the initial reading of the text, I really want to be amazed at what I’m reading.  Wonder comes easily in the Gospels.  But books like Leviticus present a few challenges in my quest.  However, there is always something magnificent to see.

To a tourist, the intricacies of levitical regulations might form just one big idea, like the astonished man who looks at the Great Pyramid of Giza only to exclaim

“Man, that pyramid is great!”

His reaction seems childish and simplistic to the local.  But hasn’t the tourist actually captured something essential?  You haven’t really seen the Great Pyramid until you’ve seen it as great.

Likewise, the reaction of the tourist in Leviticus might be:  “God is so holy!”  BasicSimpleInescapable.

The tourist mindset seeks to capture the “essential impact” that the text can have on eager eyes.

The Confidence of the Local:

I say, “Yes! God is holy!”  But then, with the confidence of a seasoned local, I want to guide the tourist to a more complete understanding.  Leviticus can inspire awe because of its detail, but it is driving us to something amazing: the truth that Christ would fulfill all of the demands the law and that through Him we can be made righteous in God’s sight.

The intricate commands were actually revealing man’s inability to keep them perfectly.  God still demands holiness.  But He provides what He demands.  His provision came through the death of His son, Jesus, our Great High Priest.  We can still maintain the tourist’s wonder at God’s holiness, but the local has shown us that there is more than meets the tourist’s eye.

The local mindset works to gain meaningful perspective on the text, reading with confident understanding of the whole “city” of God’s counsel.

Tourists emphasize the grandeur or the emotional impact of a place, but they often lack perspective and miss crucial elements that locals have known for years.  Yet locals can tend to think they’ve seen it all before, overlooking the initial impact of what they know so well.  When they work together, wonder and confidence produce a message that inspires as much as it informs.

A Break Through The Clouds

I am refreshed, recharged, and thankful.  I have the remnants of a Florida sunburn and a few bruises from intense NERF wars with my kids.  My phone is full of pictures and my imagination is soaring after hours of leisure reading.

This state of mind (and body) comes from a very generous church.  In an uncommon act of love, Calvary Baptist Church allowed my family a solid month of vacation to visit our family and friends in Florida.  I think the church saw my shoulders beginning to slump from shovelling snow and wisely prescribed a regimen of medicinal beach sand.

The experience was a new one for us.  A month to relax, to read, and to reflect. So what did I learn?

The two prevailing lessons for me were:

I.    Sharp thinking is essential in the pastorate

In the months leading up to our retreat, I found myself asking the elders to pray for me, because my mind felt so dull.  Our church is in a phase of newness.  New ministries, new members, and looking for a new place to meet on Sundays.  It’s wonderful, but it requires a lot of thought.  And sermons?  I can’t imagine anything that requires more careful thought than reading, understanding, and helpfully applying the Word of God.

The “dullness” showed up in my preaching and administrative duties.  I found myself speaking in broad generalities to avoid the pain of precise thinking.  When that happens, meetings are a waste of time because they lack focus.  And my attempts at application in the sermon started to sound a bit like:

                                   “So, there it is.  Let’s all just think about that this week.”


But during the second week of our retreat, I felt my mind starting to hit its stride again.  Fresh insights didn’t have to be churned out immediately, so I had time to follow a thought until it rested.  My friend, Clarity, broke through the clouds and showed me just how important he is to me.

My Action Plans to Make it Stick:

(a)  Improve intake. Limit the snippets.

While sitting on the white sand of Fort De Soto Beach, I thought long and hard about what clogs my brain.  I discovered that my brain gets dull when it’s too jumpy.  I thrive when my intake includes more books, fewer blogs.  More novels, fewer news feeds.  More writing, less tweeting.  More prose, fewer pictures.

In short, I need to treat the Internet like I treat Disney World.  It’s great to visit every once in a while.  But if I stay too long, I see it’s actually over-crowded, superficial, stressful, and far too costly.

(b)  Pray long.  Pray often.

Before the retreat, I think prayer had become very functional for me.  I prayed in preparation for the sermon, for meals, in hospitals, and as a way of processing distressing news.  Somehow I began to overlook the sheer joy of praying to my Father.  The break allowed me to linger in prayer.  Nothing kindles clarity like surrendering my plans and frustrations to the Lord.  As I prayed for the future of our church and our family, I tried to round off each request with “Your will be done.”  It reminded me that He is sovereign and I can trust Him.  But more than that, I once again enjoyed trusting Him.

And, by His grace, He taught me a second lesson …

II.    I am not defined by the pastorate.

Preaching has a vast importance.  The pastorate is a sacred trust.  It requires a deep personal investment, born out of a sense that God gave me breath because He wanted me to proclaim the riches of Christ.  But the pastorate does not define me.

God doesn’t just call me to be “a pastor.”  He calls me to be a certain kind of man.  I think I get tunnel vision sometimes, thinking that my identity  rises or falls by last Sunday’s message, or by the number of people who hear me preach each week.  I should strive for excellence in what I do, but the target is more holistic in scope.

Sometimes a pastor’s merit is best measured by the impact he has in the lives of people who don’t call him “pastor.”

At some point during the month away, I was driving along a familiar road in our hometown, holding my wife’s hand.  In the rearview mirror I saw my four kids dancing to the radio.  I would never say that the woman holding my hand was just “a pastor’s wife.”  The goofballs in the back were not “a pastor’s kids.”  While we have obvious responsibilities, my position in a church does not define us a family.  My hope for my children is that they would conform to the image of Christ, not the caricature of a pastor’s family.

My Action Plan to Make it Stick

Focus more on being a godly man, not just “A Man of God”

I know that seems like semantics.  But it makes a difference in my mind.  Especially when my mind is clear.


The Voice

If aliens ever visit our planet, I’m sure they will want to get a feel for Earth’s culture before just “popping in.”  Their investigation will lead them to an obvious conclusion:

Life on Earth is an endless singing competition. 

Right now a leading competition in the United States is called “The Voice.”  The premise is clever.  Celebrity judges listen to contestants without seeing them.  Seriously, the judges sit in red, cushioned thrones with their backs to the contestants.  If the singer’s “voice” is compelling enough, then a judge will swivel their throne around to look upon the performer’s face, which we are left to assume is perfect for radio.

The judge’s dramatic turn indicates two things:

  1. The contestant has made it to the next round.
  2. We will watch anything on television.

But here’s the twist: more than one judge can swivel!  Should such a stunning event occur, the future former recording artist gets to select a judge as his/her mentor.  As you can imagine, the aliens can’t stop watching.

To convince a hopeful to join their “team,” an interested celebrity judge must use his/her vast vocabulary to explain why such a voice warrants the judge’s condescension.  Here is a list of the usual pitches:

  1. “Your voice is just so unique.  You really bring a lot to this competition.”
  2. “Your voice is just so distinct. You really bring a lot to this contest.”
  3. “Your voice is just so dissimilar to the others.  You really bring a lot to this tournament.”
  4. “You look great.”

The bottom line is, singers with a unique voice – who don’t sound too much like [insert name of Grammy winner] will advance.  Why?  Because they have their own voice.

Those who sound like Adele will weep and ponder life beyond a competition that very few aliens will even remember a year from now, when they conquer us and force us to sing for them.

Preaching is not a reality show.  But preachers do run the risk of sounding a little too much like [insert name of Matt Chandler] for our own good.  “Karaoke Preaching” is fun for the preacher, but it is immature and it weakens the “voice” that God has given us.

Influence vs. Impersonation

We all have pastors who have influenced us.  I love a host of preachers, like John Piper … and I’m sure there are others.  After listening to his sermons for years, it would be dishonest to deny that his voice runs through my head when I prepare a sermon from Romans.

But it would also be disturbing if I stood up in front of the congregation every Sunday and laced my sermons with Piper’s well-hyphenated theological explosions.  In stead, the best thing to do is to let my preaching heroes lead me to the Bible.

In other words, I need to train myself to admire insightful exposition above quirky speech patterns.  The speech patterns might make a sermon enjoyable to hear, but it’s a preacher’s level of insight that I want to incorporate into my own preaching (footnoting when needed, obviously).

My Voice, in Flux.

Good authors read more books than they write.  Good musicians listen to more songs than they play.  Both good writers and good musicians are eager to encounter colleagues who make them grow.  They are constantly in flux, without losing themselves in the process.  Preachers who encounter more effective preachers on a regular basis will benefit greatly.

The hard truth is that my preaching “voice” might be authentically mine, and still be bad.  The “just be yourself” advice is great.  But we can take a misguided approach to how we apply good advice.  No one would suggest that we celebrate our tendency to mispronounce words.  Few would ratify that monotone delivery of ours, even if we claim Jonathan Edwards as our inspiration.  We must be willing and eager to tweak our “voice” if it needs tweaking.

Personally, I listen to far more sermons than I preach.  Why?  The obvious reason is that it is healthy for my soul to receive teaching from a trusted brother in Christ.  I treasure that.  But also because there are so many things about my preaching that need improvement.  Many other preachers have already made those improvements and they can serve as working models.

Finally, if there should ever be a preaching reality show, I am not totally without hope.  I have been told that I have the perfect face for radio preaching.  And, I’m confident that I can secure the alien vote.


A “Great Commission” Composition

I am preaching through the book of Acts right now.  The text of Luke’s account of the early church is stunning — when I am able to read it with fresh eyes.  Jesus ascends.  The Spirit descends.  Timid disciples become empowered ambassadors for Christ and His gospel.  It is an exciting read.

This week my preparation is easier, because I am preaching someone else’s sermon.

“What??  Plagiarist!  Someone notify Colin!”

Just a moment, Internet.  In this case, I am happy to preach another man’s sermon.  Acts Chapter 2 records Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, and it is a preacher’s dream text.  I get to read Peter’s points, and preach them.

Here’s what strikes me:  As I studied Peter’s sermon (and Luke’s commentary on the events surrounding it), I heard echoes from Christ’s commission to his disciples, as recorded by Matthew:

  •  And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make    disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you  always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:18-20) 

Peter’s first sermon was a magnificent application of this command to “make disciples.”  Here’s just a few snippets:

“… make disciples”
After the sermon is complete, we see that Peter had larger aims than just “stating his case” or just explaining the signs and wonders announcing the Spirit’s arrival.  Upon hearing his message, his hearers were “cut to the heart” and asked what they must do to be saved.  In 2:38, Peter says, “Repent and be baptized …”  A person becomes a disciple of Christ by first recognizing their fundamental need for the redemption that only Christ can provide.  But then 2:40 tell us, “and with many more words he bore witness and continued to exhort them.”  Peter was not out to get names on a “decision card.”  He was making disciples of Jesus.  So, the only people who were baptized were “those who received his word” (2:41).   The purpose of this article is not to debate infant/credo baptism.  The purpose is just to show that Peter knew his commission was to make “disciples” by “baptizing them” and “teaching them.”

“… of all nations”
I just find it interesting that 2:5 describes the crowd gathering around the disciples at Pentecost as “devout men from every nation under heaven.”  The disciples would soon go to the “ends of the earth” but for now, the ends of the earth had come to Jerusalem.  The text tells us that these were Jews from every nation.  But the gospel would soon go forth to both Jews and Gentiles.  Peter refers to this when He tells his Jewish brothers, “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (2:39).

“… in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”
It is easy to think that Pentecost was all about the Holy Spirit.  Certainly, the central issue in the early part of Chapter 2 is that Jesus’ promise came true.  The Spirit of God had come to empower the disciples to “be [His] witnesses” (1:8).  But Peter’s sermon is thoroughly trinitarian.  A rundown of the stats:  Peter references God (the Father) in verses 16, 17, 23, 24, 30, 32, 33, 36, and 39.  He refers to Jesus (the Son) in verses 22, 23, 31, 32, 36, and 38.  He mentions the Spirit (The Holy Spirit) in verses 17, 18, 33 and 38.

Interestingly, when Peter calls them to be baptized, he seems to use the name of Jesus exclusively: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ” (2:38).  However, context shows that The Father and The Holy Spirit are nearby in Peter’s teaching.  The “name of Jesus” is prefaced in verse 36 with the truth that God (the Father) had made him “both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”  And Peter tells the candidates for baptism that when they are baptized in the name of Jesus, they would “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (2:38b).

I’m not saying that his sermon was a treatise on the Trinity.  But when Peter lays out a full presentation of the gospel of Christ, he is Spirit-led to call on the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in accordance with the commission he received.

So much more
To be sure, there is a lot going on in Peter’s Pentecost sermon.  He draws on prophecy, coming judgment, and predestination as he proclaims the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  In Peter’s proclamation, it is beautiful to hear echoes of the Lord’s commission.  This is not the Peter who boasted in his own faithfulness.  This is a newly empowered preacher who shines the light on God, in all of His trinitarian, redemptive glory.

Preaching to Make Disciples

I try to imagine it sometimes:

A first-century believer walks into a small congregation, maybe in Antioch.  He enters with suspicion, holding his young family close.  His eyes dart around, trying to get the “feel” of this gathering.

A quick-eyed, elderly brother notices them and rushes to welcome the new family with a holy kiss.  Now that the pleasantries are over, the visitor drops a stunning question: “So, what do you have to offer us?”

Taken aback, the wizened man scrambles for an answer.  “We, um, well … er.  We can teach you about our Lord? You are invited to come and worship Him with us, if you like.”

The newcomers are not impressed.  “Right, right.  Anything else?”


That’s when I snap out of the daydream, because it’s just too hard to imagine early believers doing that (although they had their own foibles).  But that kind of conversation happens practically every Sunday in the modern church.  Only, our greeters are usually quick to provide a glossy list of our programs and special features.

Similar encounters occur when discussing the preaching ministry of a church.  We never want to disappoint, do we?  In fact, our desire to “satisfy the needs of people” can lead us into believing that our preaching is just a “service” we offer to picky patrons in a highly competitive market.

But we preach to make disciples, not to satisfy consumers.

The pulpit is the place to set that tone for the entire church.  Personally, I have to check myself often, lest I lose the purpose of the sermon.  At some point during preparation I’ll sit back from the keyboard and ask something like:

“Is this point really aimed at making disciples?  Or am I just crafting a slick product?”

Here’s just a few bullet points I jotted down one week when the urge to “satisfy my target market” became really concerning for me (these are spoken to myself):

“Lead them to Jesus’ feet, not yours.”                

The image of Mary sitting at her master’s feet in Luke 10 is a powerful one to remember when we preach.  We preach to make disciples of Jesus.  Jesus’ disciples belong at the feet of Jesus – He is the one they are meant to follow.  Help them find their satisfaction in Him, His work, and in His authoritative teaching, not in a pastor and his flashy technology (Yes, I’m aware of my previous article).

To be sure, small groups, men’s Bible studies, children’s programs, and excellent music – the things we “offer” – are important, and they certainly facilitate discipleship.

But our preaching can regularly call people to ask: “If one day our church’s programs, shiny technology, and special events all vanished at once, would Jesus be enough for us?”

If Jesus’ and His teaching are not enough to satisfy us, then we have neglected “the good portion.”  So, we might think long and hard before tipping our hat to consumer-driven queries like “What do you have to offer us?”

“Say what you need to say.”

 I recently watched the 2010 remake of The Karate Kid with my children.  In the opening scenes, John Mayer’s song “Say” plays as the protagonist leaves his home in a rain-soaked Detroit bound for mysterious Beijing, where he learns Kung Fu (Kung Fu Kid?).  Mayer’s song has a haunting little melody and a very repetitive chorus:

♪ ♫ Say what you need to say♩ ♫    [ad ridiculum]

That simple phrase reminded me of the humble boldness that should accompany preaching.  The Bible is full of timeless, frank truths that we need to say – even if “consumers” would prefer to hear them with more nuance.

Say them.  Let the markets reel.  We’re out to make real disciples, not to hock a “new and improved” discount discipleship.   We can say things plainly:  We have all sinned.  Hell is real.  Only Jesus can save.  Only He can satisfy – and He will satisfy His disciples for eternity.

There is a caution here.  Strange to quote Mayer twice in an article on preaching, but another line from “Say” intrigued me:

♪ ♫ Say it with a heart wide open ♩ ♫

I need to remember to “say what I need to say” from a heart that loves God and longs for people to become passionate disciples of Christ.  Calling for boldness is not a call to “give them a piece of my mind.”  My mind has very little to offer them.

Modeling a full heart in our preaching sets the right example for disciples.  After all, we want disciples who sound like the Psalmist, who wrote:

            With my whole heart I seek you;
                                                                       let me not wander from your commandments!
                                                                                       – Psalm 119:10

Obeying His “commandments” with a “whole heart.”  Let me so preach, let me so practice.

“Trust Him.”

Simple enough, right?  But in a culture marked by constant pressure to “innovate” and “sell” we have to trust that God will produce the fruit that honors Him through time-tested preaching.  People might tire of our sermons, they could possibly yawn at a careful exposition of Romans 9, and they might leave our churches for ones with more to “offer.”

Still, we can trust Him.  If our mission is to make disciples, then we can preach with full confidence in His Word – the Word He breathed “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (2 Timothy 3:16).  That is what our preaching ministry has to offer.  It may not interest consumers.  But that is exactly what disciples need.

As we preach that kind of Word, we can trust that His Spirit will transform people who ask “What do you have to offer us?” into people who say, “I am here to serve.”

This just in … iPads are useful.

My printer behaved badly last Saturday night — just as I started to print my sermon notes for Sunday morning.  My troubled history with computers, printers, routers, and mouse pads is the stuff of myth and legend.  A boring legend, but still …

I was forced to make a decision.  Do I go from memory or do I handwrite my notes?

In this i-age of ours, I knew for sure there must be a better solution.  A quick search turned up an app for my iPad called Notability (I am in no way affiliated with this product — this is not a commercial).  I am something of a lagger when it comes to technology, so I might assume that everyone on the planet already uses this app.  This is just one man’s story.

The app allowed me to open a PDF of my sermon notes so I could preach from the iPad on Sunday morning.  I anticipated the good-natured flack I might get from my congregation, so I explained my situation in the opening of the sermon.

I’m not sure if I’m completely “sold” on this method, but let me share some advantages I found in using this app for my notes.

1)  Annotations:  Every saturday night I sit down with a pen and my freshly-printed sermon notes (unless thwarted by my printer.  Nemesis!).  This is my favourite step in sermon preparation.  I read the passage slowly and I pray through every point.  My pen rounds up the elusive insights which had fled from me during the week, only to surrender in this quiet moment.  Previously, the “saved” version of my sermon notes lacked annotations (which were usually some of the most thoughtful components of the message).  This app allowed me to highlight and “hand write” annotations and save them.  Various colours, pen size, etc.  I liked that.

True, I could have saved my annotated notes in the past using a scanner.  But what am I?  A Visigoth?  Talk about lagging. Hmph.

2) No Fumbling:  Turning pages in the pulpit is not a big deal, but it can be a little cumbersome at times.   Having a PDF in front of me (with my annotations) made my materials “cleaner” and no breeze can render me noteless.

3) A Cue:  Strangely, I did not feel as “tied” to my notes as I have in the past.  The enlarged font and the highlighter made the material spring from the screen and it felt very natural.

4) Storage:  I mentioned this above, but being able to send and store my fully annotated notes is a blessing.  Saving them to a cloud-type source also protects their safety should I misplace my mobile device.

I grant you, this post will not save the world.  But I was helped by this discovery and thought some fellow preachers might be as well.

By the way, Colin Adams uses an inkwell and parchment.  But he can totally pull it off.

The Family Illustration

I serve a young church.  I get a reminder of this when I look at our congregation at the beginning of Sunday’s service.  We are a sleep-deprived people.  We are also a people of carseats, diaper bags, toy trucks and baby dolls.  After service, our conversations take place as we watch children slide down a hill behind the church building.

People at other phases in life are certainly represented, and greatly loved in our church.  But the predominant feel of the congregation is “thirty-something with kids.”  At a recent elders meeting we realized that between our four families, we have 14 children.  That is significant.

Because of our demographics, I often use “the family illustration” in my sermons.  Here’s my rationale, which I hope is not too technical:

People get them.  

In a conventional sense, an illustration is not the place to introduce difficult material that is unrelated to the text.  If I spend 10 minutes setting up an illustration from Roman History, I likely just wasted a lot of time and I left people asking “So when did Cicero first become a Quaestor?”

In my view, I should be into the heart of the illustration in about 10 seconds.  Like this: “The other day I was shoveling snow with my kids.”  Everyone in Newfoundland shovels snow and most people in our church have children.  Immediate recognition.

However …

The family illustration is dangerous.  If overused, family stories become trite and boring.  On the flip side, if they are too hilarious they will distract people from the text.  Not to mention the danger of constantly making our kids the focus of our sermons.  “Did you hear what your dad said about you this morning????”  Bad form, dad.

Some preachers never use them.  Some use them every week.  I am somewhere in the middle.

So, here are just a few questions I ask myself when a family moment screams: “God gave you this for your sermon introduction!”

Does this glorify sin?

Kids do funny things.  Unfortunately, kids also do sinful things.  I prefer using stories that involve some innocuous family activity, rather than: “The other day, __________ hit __________ in the nose.”  The latter might be more attention-grabbing, but I do not want __________’s sin and _____________’s pain to be sources of delight for the congregation.

Is this totally true?

Isn’t it tempting to change a story to make it more punchy?  The conversation with your toddler son was certainly meaningful, but did he really say “Daddy, I just love the way you model the gospel in our home.  I want to grow up to be just like you.”

Yes, that would have been incredible and worth sharing.  Had it really happened that way.

Do I talk about my kids too much?

Yes.  I probably do.  When I use a family illustration one week, I will tend to stay clear of “home stories” for weeks to come.  For one reason, I don’t want to be on the prowl for a sermon-starter when I’m hanging out with my family.  That’s just gross.

Does this honor my wife?

“My wife shops all the time … to save money!” [rim shot].  Hold up, pastor.  Even if a wife were on board with a preacher sharing that kind of thing, it is not a good model for how men should talk about their wives.

It’s not a good idea to promote a voyeuristic journey into our marital relationship, either.  If a moment requires me to close a door, I am probably not going to open that door during a sermon.  Marital issues can be handled boldly and directly without using our own spouses as props every week.

Am I more excited about this story or the text?

We preach the Bible, not ourselves.  Although I use illustrations often, I want my sermons to be biblical, not anecdotal.  After the service I want to have conversations about the text, not what a hoot my kids are (although that is an undeniable fact).  I want “justification by faith alone” to be what wows them, not my daughter’s dance recital (which was exquisite).  Something is very wrong if the entertainment value of an illustration is higher in my affections that the biblical truth it illustrates.

If you avoid family illustrations as a matter of principle, I totally understand.  But if we see fit to use them occasionally, let’s pray for wisdom is selecting them.

Preaching to Distraction

People walk in late.  They sneeze in funny ways.  At least five people stroll out to find the restroom.  A bee buzzes around an elderly woman’s head.  Her husband comes to her aid and then takes a little bow.  Teenagers laugh.  A cougher unwraps his lozenge.  He continues to cough.  The microphone performs its weekly feedback recital.  A Jay-Z ringtone blasts from the fourth row.

All the while, we preach.

If the distractions are too great, we might begin to feel like the musicians on the deck of the Titanic, providing background noise while everyone else is captivated by a more enthralling drama.  True, in-service distractions are usually not life and death issues.

But they just might sink a sermon.

As long as we preach to people, there will be distractions.  And it is futile to pretend that they don’t bother us from time to time.  That is not vanity.  Distractions bother us because what we are preaching is not a time-filler.  It is vitally important.

I view the Sunday morning sermon as central to the life of the church.  It is a weekly opportunity to have the entire body focused on one passage of Scripture together.  Distractions undermine that moment.  The sermon is also the culmination of a week’s worth of study, prayer and writing for the pastor.  That effort should not be wasted.

So how can we process the distractions* without alienating people or scrapping the sermon?

Pray against them

Beat distractions to the punch.  As I lead the congregation in prayer before the message I pray for the Lord to give us minds centered on his word.  I often acknowledge that distractions will come, but I pray that the Christ who is set before us would overcome the unfolding drama around us.

Provide a counter-distraction

It is helpful to teach listeners what to do with distractions. This is best done before Lady Antebellum’s latest heart-sick power ballad squawks from a ringer on full blast.  But we can’t always see that coming. However, we also can’t just hope that the congregation will recover from a diversion on its own.

When an obvious disturbance comes, I will often say in stride, “Everyone take your Bibles and look …”  It calls us to action and reminds us of where our attention should be without saying, “Hey, pay attention!”  That’s not a gimmick.  After all, the Bible is where our attention should be.

Preach Better

Boring sermons are brutal.  Don’t be brutal to your listeners.  Have you ever been droned to death by an ill-prepared message that leaves you begging for something exciting to happen?  Anything will do.  In that context distractions can be a delight for us.  When the “drone attack” is beaten back by something unexpected from the crowd, faces break into broad smiles as bodies return to life.

They were desperate for rescue and Old Man Sweeney’s bee execution provided it.

Now, when I say “preach better” I don’t mean “song and dance.”  I don’t mean better graphics or mindless jokes.  I mean to work harder to make the content more gripping than any interruption could be.  Preach with an intensity that matches the reality we proclaim. Be fueled by the wonder of the Gospel and the majesty of God.  People are not easily distracted when they are watching something on fire.

Also, think about the flow of the message and allow for “on-ramps” — places for people to rejoin you after a more difficult section.  For example, maybe use an easily accessible illustration after launching a syntactical missile.  If they are not with you, then they are hunting for distractions.  And they will find them.

Preach as a pastor to real people 

We preach to people, not sermon-receptors.  People are imperfect and have attention spans that are not what they could be.  We love them anyway.  We want to help our listeners understand the word, and that process involves understanding them, distractions and all.

Above all else, let us believe that what we are preaching is the most important thing in the world, because it is.  Let’s preach it well, trusting the Holy Spirit to empower our preaching and their listening.

And give Old Man Sweeney a high five.  Those were some mad bee-killing skills.


* Minor distractions are in view.  If the building catches fire, promptly stop preaching and identify the exits.

“This Might Sting”

I think I handle them better now than I used to handle them.  But they are never easy.

We have all had those requests for “a word with you” after the morning sermon.   A listener has listened and now they would like to speak, to voice their take on a particular section of the message.

I can usually tell by the expression on their face if they want to correct something I have said.  A furrowed brow forms a fleshy umbrella over their concerned eyes.  Perhaps they hazard a light hand on my shoulder.

This might sting, Pastor.

This is a moment of truth.  If we are not disciplined in responding to critiques, this episode can quickly morph into a scene from a horror movie.  About preaching.  It’s a new genre.

If we are honest, the hours following a sermon can be the worst time for someone to “share” with us.  We spent a week preparing.  We parsed things.  We preached with zeal as we simultaneously prayed for our hearers.  The sermon became our baby and we made it through the delivery!  And now someone is about to tell us that our baby is ugly, or that our baby did something wrong.  Or both.

Here are just a few things that I have found helpful to remember during a sermon critique:

The Goal is not “Good Sermon.”  The Goal is “Teach the Truth.”

People are kind-hearted.  Most people do not want to hurt our feelings or go to the trouble of pointing out our flaws.  They are generally thankful for a good service and ready for lunch.  So they will simply say, “Good sermon, Preacher.”

But when someone hesitates and then asks for a moment of our time, it could be that they have a love for the truth that outweighs the awkwardness of the conversation to follow.  In other words, if our goal really is to teach the truth then we should welcome feedback that advances that cause.

Other People Can Make Good Points

Preachers do not have a monopoly on understanding the Word.  Nor does the ministry of the Word stop with our conclusion.  The Word is at work long after we clock out for the morning.  Scripture is useful for “teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (II Tim. 3:16).  And sometimes, the preacher is the intended target.

When someone takes us to Scripture and shows us a crucial point that we missed or misstated, our allegiance to the truth should trump our hurt feelings.  It is hard to admit when we get it wrong.  But we must.  If we express heartfelt gratitude for the critique then we elevate the Word above ourselves.  That type of humility is an important discipline to model to our congregations.

Sometimes People Make Good Points in Annoying Ways

This is a tricky one.  It would be nice if every critique came with all the warmth and gravitas of a Morgan Freeman narration.  But those are rare.  I once received a critique that started this way, “Let me tell you something that you have obviously never considered.”

Let’s be frank.  That is a crazy annoying thing to say.

But he was right.  I had never considered his point.  In that moment I felt two responsibilities.  I needed to embrace the point graciously.  However, I could not abdicate my pastoral responsibility to recommend a smoother opening line.  Responding with something like, “That is a truly insightful point, but I think we could have started this conversation in a better way” usually fulfills both responsibilities.

Sometimes People Nit-Pick

There are times when a critique is true but not significant.  After making a passing illustration of a “cocoon” an earnest school teacher informed me that, in the context of my illustration, the image of a “chrysalis” would have been much more appropriate.  As I tried to follow her enchanting details about pupa (right before lunch) I thought it best to thank her with the gentle “thank you” that ends a conversation.

She had a point, but it was a small one.

But even those moments can be gateways into meaningful conversation.  If someone listens to an entire sermon and comes away obsessed with a seemingly small matter, it is probably because we have touched on something that looms large in their daily life.  Playful illustrations about children can conjure images of estranged daughters.  A few follow-up questions could reveal if the nits they are picking are attached to significant problems.  If we roll our eyes too quickly at nit-picking we might be the ones who miss the point.

Sometimes People are Wrong

We studied this passage for a week.  We read widely and lingered on nuances of Greek definitions.  It is likely that we know more about this subject than anyone in the room.  When responding to a critique, don’t be too quick to minimize the study you have done.

If someone laments a cross-reference you should have used, explain the choices you made in light of the text’s meaning.  Humility does not require us to look down at our feet and take all feedback to heart.  We may need to clarify our points, but that does not mean that they were wrong.

Confess, Correct and Move On

We have the great honor of proclaiming the Gospel and sharing the riches of Christ every week.  And we want to do it with excellence.  We are also called upon to preach difficult truths and to address complicated issues in our sermons.  The complexity of the task means that we will need correction from time to time.

It is not the end of the world.

Honest correction is not an assault on our character.  It does not belittle our pastoral office.  Critiques do not give us license to pout or to ruin our family’s Sunday afternoon.  If we are eager to confess our shortcomings and to correct the errors we make, then critiques need not be horrific experiences.

May the Lord use critiques, however they come, to sharpen our communication and strengthen our reliance upon His grace.