The Shepherds Who Are Sheep

church leaders are vulnerable

Speaking in real life terms, shepherds and sheep are independent entities. Sure, you might find them lurking in the same field, but whether from near or afar, you’d hardly confuse them. A shepherd is not a sheep and the four legged cud-chewer is clearly not a shepherd.

But in the stream of biblical thinking the same can’t quite be said.  Shepherds are sheep; and some of the sheep are shepherds.  The category of shepherd – a spiritual leader of the flock – is common parlance throughout the Bible (Ezekiel 34, Jeremiah 3:15, John 21:17, 1 Tim 3:1-2, 1 Peter 5:2, Hebrews 13:17). Christ is the Chief Shepherd and his under-shepherds assist him in sheep care (1 Peter 5:1-4).

Yet this is where the twist comes. The shepherd of Christ’s flock is also part of it. They are one of the sheep who has gone astray (Isaiah 53:6) and part of the number for which the Shepherd died (John 10:15). A man may play the role of a shepherd but he never departs his place in the flock. Like the rest, he exclaims with personal assurance: “the Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23:1).

This simultaneous reality – that the shepherd is also sheep – is something we must hold in healthy tension. The term ‘shepherd’ reminds us of the leader’s responsibility. The term ‘sheep’ reminds us of his vulnerability. A shepherd is a role of strength. It involves leading, feeding and protecting. A sheep by contrast is vulnerable. Every sheep can succumb to suffering, or stray down an unwise path.

Reasons to consider vulnerability

As creatures and sinners I would argue that church leaders are always vulnerable. But to stress the immediacy of this, let me offer two stark reasons to consider the subject.

First, the growing number of church leaders who appear to be shipwrecking their ministries. Immorality, greed and doctrinal defection are hardly new phenomena (2 Samuel 11, Matthew 23:25, 2 Peter 2:1-3).  But contemporary examples seem to be multiplying. Whether it’s big respected names or pastors only known locally, too many ministries are leaving a stench in their wake. The growing prevalence of abusive styles of leadership – whether by paid pastors or their fellow elders – is a worrying trend.¹ If these examples don’t cause us to look hard at ourselves, I don’t know what will.

Second, the growing pressures on church leaders as they shepherd their churches through the global pandemic.  There is a deadly combination here of ‘more and less.’ There is more pastoral need than ever and more problems to resolve as a leadership team. Yet as more is continually demanded, the support church leaders receive has often been less. While marvellous attempts have been made to organise online support, the loss of face to face encouragement has been significant. At this point in time, church leaders have never been so vulnerable to the twin threats of suffering and sin.


So what are some of the common vulnerabilities? In the list that follows (not exhaustive!) I’ll suggest what I think are seven of the most frequent. All of these have sadly featured at times in my own flawed leadership. They are also observations I have made of others, and the sort of thing I want to forewarn a new elder about as they enter the leadership arena.

1/ Positional pride (I have made it). A strange thing can happen when a person rises to prominence. They can morph from a humble servant into a self-assured proudling. Here the man makes his leadership position the general measure of his spiritual standing. He frequently and happily reminds himself of ‘who he is’ in relation to others. Such pride may not always ‘strut’ but is often more subtle and insidious. It can manifest, for example, in him becoming far too sure of each and every one of his personal opinions. Everyone must agree with him, listen to him and respect him no matter what. After all, he is “the pastor”, “the elder” etc.


2/ Projecting godliness (I can’t be honest). This is the next step to the previous danger. If we think that we have made it, we will start to act like it. We will project godliness. Now, one would hope that church leaders would unconsciously emanate godly character. But there is a difference between this emerging from a man, and it being projected by him. There is all the difference in the world between a man who is praying to God, and one praying to make an impression on his listeners (Luke 18:11). Similarly, we could ask our families the question: does the “godly” man in church bear any resemblance to the man we engage with at home?

3/ Unnecessarily defensive (I can’t be challenged). When a leader is projecting a spiritual image they will not take kindly to a critical comment. Granted, church members can be unfair and unkind in their assessments of us. But just as common a flaw are leaders who act like they are above criticism. Such a leader doesn’t listen to the critic but always responds with an immediate ‘comeback.’ (Sometimes this involves turning the tables on the critic in some way and pointing out their failings).  Such a leader is always angry when they are criticised and will tend to throw others under the bus to save their own reputation being tarnished.

4/ Discouragement (I can’t keep going).   Facing times of discouragement goes with the territory of Christian leadership. People wander away from the faith and the church. Individuals continue to squabble, despite your best efforts to help them see eye to eye. Evangelistic fruit seems little. Your own performance as a church leader disappoints you, nevermind anybody else!

5/ Burnout (I can’t stop or rest). Church leaders are some of the busiest people on the planet. This is especially true of non-church staff who juggle their jobs, family’s and a substantial church commitment. Being an elder isn’t something that fits into one time slot – like serving at the coffee morning on a Wednesday. And because we love people, we can find ourselves trying to fix them.  Before long we’re trying to be everyone’s Saviour; something we would admit, Jesus is much better at than us (!). Slowly and inevitably, as we suffer from ‘hero syndrome’, we move ourselves further down the road to one destination. Burnout.

6/  Overly controlling  (I can’t let others set the agenda). There’s nothing wrong with a strong personality, but it’s something of a red flag when a leader seems to get his own way every time. This sort of leadership micromanages everyone. This includes the other leaders, who need to follow my personal agenda. I use my personality, emotional pressure or personal loyalty to get people on side. I either withdraw or attack those who disagree with me. They soon learn not to dissent from me again.

7/ Ministry production (I start to see people as frustrations and obstacles, not as those I love and serve). When I started out as a young preacher, I think I was more passionate about the sermon than about the people I was preaching it to. An older gentleman in my church identified the problem. He took me aside one day and said “Colin – don’t forget that it’s about people.”  That sage advice often rings in my ears.  Whenever I feel frustrated by someone I remember that they are the very reason I am in ministry. People are not obstacles; they are those that God loves, those who I am called to serve.

we’re vulnerable – so now what? 

So far I’ve majored on diagnosis, and you might think I’ve been pretty scant on remedy. I guess it is easier to expose the problems than to deal with their underlying causes. However I want to offer some practical thoughts on creating a more self-aware and gospel shaped leadership culture. These suggestions are not just for individual leaders but for the whole leadership team.

Talk and pray in such a way that alludes to your vulnerability as leaders. This isn’t about airing all of our dirty laundry. It’s not talking at length about our every struggle and mentioning them in every prayer or conversation. But church leaders should make it clear by what they say that they don’t have everything ‘sorted.’ We do struggle with pride. We can succumb to temptation. Our tongue gets out of control at times. We need ongoing grace, forgiveness and transformation.

Ask for prayer, as well as offer it. Of course we should spend much of our pastoral time praying for people and asking them what to pray for. But asking others to pray for us is a Pauline pattern (Romans 15:30-33; 2 Corinthians 1:10-11; Ephesians 6:19-20; Philippians 1:19-20; Colossians 4:2-4; 1 Thessalonians 5:25; 2 Thessalonians 3:1-2; Philemon 22). Such a request expresses our own vulnerability, the great need we have for God’s help.

Consider ‘structures’ for pastoring each other. It is great when leadership teams support each other organically. But in the fast paced world we live in, some structure may be needed to ensure mutual support. In my own church, our elders are part of a leadership pair. The pair meet 3 times a year to discuss where we are spiritually and how we are coping with the demands and temptations of leadership.

Do something together that is just for growth. Read books together. Go to a conference. Have outside input from another church leader or organisation, just to learn. If the eldership team aren’t doing such things, it may suggest a ‘posture’ of unteachability.

Analyse the test case of conflict in your leadership team Conflict reveals a great deal your leadership culture.  Bear in mind that no conflict is a bad thing. There must always be room for healthy disagreement among leaders. Instead, we should ask questions like: how do people disagree? Do people ‘fight fair’?² Are some leaders unable to accept when they find themselves on the losing side of a discussion? Are there ongoing tensions in the aftermath, or are things resolved with generosity and forgiveness?

Keep applying the gospel to yourself as leaders. By this I don’t just mean that we should believe the gospel in a notional sense. We must relate the gospel to our view of leaders specifically. The gospel declares that we are sinners, so we  shouldn’t be surprised to find that in our own hearts as leader’s. But the gospel also proclaims freedom, forgiveness and hope. We can fearlessly face up to our sins because God is able to cover them and to increasingly empower us to turn  from them.


God is well aware that even shepherds need shepherding. He understands better than we do that shepherds are sheep. I have long thought it telling that the New Testament contains so much material specifically directed towards leaders.³ Since the shepherds are also sheep, they also need fed, protected and encouraged. The call not only to watch over the flock, but to oversee own’s own soul (Acts 20:28) seems as loud and as relevant as ever. 


(This article is an adaptation of a discussion/talk I had with a group of church leaders in January 2021. The examples it gives and focus tends to be on church pastors and elders. But there are principles here that apply more widely to leadership at all different levels across the church).

¹ Paul Tripp’s recent book Lead is worth reading in conjunction with his prior work Dangerous Calling. Dangerous Calling describes the dangers full time pastor’s face, while Lead looks at the wider leadership culture in which the pastor serves. Both can be problematic and unhealthy leadership can be just as present among the wider elders, and their power bases, as can be an issue for the set aside pastor.

² Check out the article: “How to fight right” for more on this. 2019-09-16-how-to-fight-right-tripp.pdf (

³ Consider the time Jesus invested in the apostles, the future leaders of his church. Note that out of Paul’s thirteen letters, three of them were written directly to those in leadership. We are also struck by the fact that Peter, an experienced leader, needed to be rebuked by Paul when he was acting out of line with the gospel (Galatians 2:14).


Shorter Online Preaching: What Isn’t Being Factored In

Back in the late 1990s I was press ganged in to writing a tedious essay. The subject was “monologue preaching” and whether like last week’s milk its sell by date had passed. Voices at the time were asserting that post-modern people would no longer suffer the traditional sermon. With more than a smidgen of irony we were told that we needed to change our ways – or else! “Proclamation must be replaced with conversation.” “The research showed” that if churches made this shift, they would be soon be filled to overflowing (around coffee tables, of course!).

While I definitely learned some things from these advocates for change*, their overall emphasis was flawed. They gradually encouraged a church culture that was too uncertain of what it was saying, and which eventually had nothing to say at all. Churches that embraced post-modern doctrine slowly shrunk; while conversely, less adaptable churches either held steady (or even grew) as they preached straightforward sermons.

It was a parable within my lifetime that it isn’t always best to follow the trend. It isn’t always wise to go where the research takes us.

It seems to me that there could be some parallels to the push I’m hearing right now towards much reduced online sermons. Now in most cases, I realise, what is being argued for is a 5 minute trim. That may indeed be sensible in the online context. Yet something hasn’t been sitting right with me in terms of the assumptions driving the discussion. The arguments to foreshorten sermons seem often to overstate their case or miss some critical factors.

Sunday morning context

In all the discussions about attention spans, the Sunday morning context is often strangely omitted. We’re told about attention spans, in general terms, and we hear that since people are at home there are many distractions around them. Therefore, we had better keep our sermons short and snappy.

Now quite aside from the fact that there are distractions even when doing “live” preaching, what seems to be largely missed is the context. The vast majority of our online hearers are Christian believers who are (in their minds) “going to church” on a Sunday morning. These people are used to making time for church on Sunday mornings. From a certain point of view they are highly committed and motivated. Anyone who usually rolls out of bed on a Sunday morning and goes to church is either motivated or coerced! Their busy weekly schedule is normally clear on a Sunday morning. They are happy to give up their time – an hour of it or more – and are expecting to do so.

Hearer interest

Another point that is often overlooked is that most of our target audience are highly interested in the subject matter. To compare, as some are doing, the attention spans of church members to the attention spans of University students in online lectures is to compare apples with oranges. The levels of respective interest in the subject matter may be massively different.

Of course in any communication context, if a hearer isnt interested in the subject, even a 5 minute talk will seem boring. On the other hand, many Americans tune in and watch an hour long state of the Union address because the subject matter engages them. Equally many Brits have been glued to 1 hour daily briefings from government ministers and health advisors. These presentations are nothing more than people talking being lecturns, with the odd graph being displayed. The point is that people are interested in the subject!


I think one of the unfortunate things in this whole discussion is the assumption that most preachers in our churches are not very good communicators. I hope that isn’t true. I assume the reason we let them up the front for 30-40 minutes on pre-lockdown Sundays was because they can hold people’s attention. They have a degree of teaching gift.

I would argue that a dull preacher is hard to listen to, even for five minutes, in any format. But I (and many others) have listened to good preachers online for 50 minutes plus and have still been engaged. Can the more rank and file preacher not hold people’s attention online for 25?

The work of the Spirit

One of my observations during this lockdown is that there has been a subtle shift towards the importance of technique in our preaching communication. Much of this is understandable, and doubtless there are things we have needed to learn about speaking into a camera more effectively. But I fear that too many preachers could be tempted to start relying on a fine-tuned technique than on the power of the Word and Spirit.

As John Stott reminds us: the Holy Spirit “is working at both ends” (a comment he makes based on 1 Thessalonians 1:4-5), empowering both the preacher and working in the heart of the hearer. Can’t the Holy Spirit create interest in the heart of those watching, to keep watching, and to be impacted by what they hear?

Not the last word

I’m not trying to take some sort of high ground against those who have decided that they’re going to preach for 15 minutes. This is ultimately a wisdom decision. The online screen aspect probably is a factor, and in different places and churches differing decisions will no doubt be prudent. I also haven’t factored in the question of preaching to non-Christians, many more of whom may be attending our Sunday service online. They might be the best argument for shorter sermons. I would argue, however, that it might be more helpful to consider doing shorter talks (or courses) online specifically for them, rather than shortening all of our sermons for the benefit of 10% of our audience.


* I did learn that all preaching needs to be dialogical to a degree. It was also true by the 90s that evangelism needed to happen in more socially connected, informal ways, where we listened as well as proclaimed the gospel message.

Does Joy Really Come In The Morning?

“I want to share with you a verse from the Bible that should comfort you – and should comfort me. But it’s a verse that, if I’m really honest, sometimes has troubled me a little bit.  I’ve often wondered, “what does this verse actually mean?”

So here’s the verse. It’s Psalm 30 verse 5, and I’m going to read it to you in the King James Version. Because it’s more dramatic! It says this: “Weeping may endure for the night, but joy cometh in the morning”

It’s a great verse, isn’t it? It’s a verse that we could put on a poster or a Christian calendar! It’s the kind of sentiment that we would sing in a Christian song or hymn.

But when you get down to it, you start to ask yourself: what does this verse actually mean? I mean it’s nice to text it to a friend for their encouragement, but what’s the reality behind this verse? Does it simply mean that every morning I rise as a Christian I’ll have joy in my heart and I’ll be full of the joy of the Lord?

That’s not our experience, is it? Very often we go to bed feeling tired and burdened about things going on in our lives. And then we wake up in the morning and we still feel tired and burdened! I find that particularly at the moment. I wake up and my first thought is: we’re still in the middle of the Co-Vid crisis. And my heart just sinks. So what does this verse mean? How does it apply to me as a Christian? What does it mean to say that in the morning we’re going to experience this great joy?

Well I’ve done a little bit of digging into this verse. And I think I understand a little more of what it actually means. There’s at least three levels at which we can apply this verse.

Firstly, we can apply it to ourselves. You see, in the Bible this idea of night and dawn is really a picture of God bringing us relief when we are in distress. You see that even in the context of the Psalm. That God had brought judgement on his people – his anger was expressed against them in their circumstances – but then God brought relief. It was like the morning dawn. The sun rose in their experience. And so this image of morning joy is really a picture of those times in our lives when God steps in, when he lifts our burdens, when he makes life easier, when he pours out (in a more obvious way) his blessings.

It’s that experience when we’ve been praying about something for a long time, praying for someone to come to faith, praying that some circumstance in our life will change and we pray and we pray and we pray. And then one day God answers. One day there’s that sense of morning joy. So I think this psalm can happen in our experience, but it won’t happen every morning! It’s not to be read in that kind of literal way, but it speaks of those experiences in our lives, when God intervenes in answer to our prayers.

I think those a second level this psalm applies is it applies to the Lord Jesus himself. When we think of Jesus as he hung on the cross, of course we know that he hung there in the darkness. And the darkness was appropriate because it spoke of the judgement of God and it spoke of the fact that there was no relief for Jesus on the cross. That he suffered their in agony for us. He dies there on the cross, he’s buried then in a tomb, and he’s laid there in the darkness of the depths of the earth. And that’s appropriate, isn’t it, because he’s in that place of death, of not enjoying the fulness of life. But on the third day – very interestingly and fittingly, at the dawn in the early morning – the Father raises his Son from the dead. And Jesus exits the darkness into the light of the dawn.

And that’s a wonderful picture of Jesus release from that place of distress, that place of death, as he rises into new life and in a resurrection body. So as we think of joy coming in the morning, as we run up to Easter time, we can think of how Jesus went through that darkness for us. Of how his agony means that we will never face judgement. Let’s allow that to encourage our soul. Let’s think of the fact that he rose in the morning and how that means that we have a great hope ahead of us.

But then the third level at which this verse applies is looking even further ahead than that. Because ultimately this verse – joy in the morning – is fulfilled ultimately in the new creation. Paul describes this age we’re living in as an age of darkness, but he says in one place that the darkness is already passing away. Christ is coming again. He has already come, he’s with us by his Spirit presently, and he’s coming again in future glory. And when he comes the darkness, and all the features of the darkness will be removed and taken away. Sin and sickness, decay and death, will be swept off the table in that new creation. And it’s in that day that in all of its fullness we will experience this morning joy!

So as you read this verse, think not just about those distressing things in your life that you want God to relieve, but think of the Lord Jesus who rose from the dead, and think ultimately of the fact that he’s coming again. He’s coming to bring relief to the sadness of the night. He’s coming to bring eternal joy to each of us.

Perplexed, But Not Despairing (6)








Source: John Piper, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals


“We pastors are being killed by the professionalizing of the pastoral ministry. The mentality of the professional is not the mentality of the prophet. It is not the mentality of the slave of Christ. Professionalism has nothing to do with the essence and the heart of the Christian ministry. The more professional we long to be, the more spiritual death we will leave in our wake. For there is no professional childlikeness, there is no professional tenderheartedness, there is no professional panting after God.

Brothers, we are not professionals. We are outcasts. We are aliens and exiles in the world. Our citizenship is in Heaven, and we wait with eager expectation for the Lord (Phil. 3:20). You cannot professionalize the love for His appearing without killing it. And it is being killed. The world sets the agenda of the professional man; God sets the agenda of the spiritual man. The strong wine of Jesus Christ explodes the wineskins of professionalism.”

Comment: Piper’s book struck me as saying something necessary, especially to some parts of an American constituency, when it was released in the early 2000s. Piper was targeting the drift towards seeing pastoral ministry as a job, entailing a list of tasks, which aims for the goals of popularity and appreciation. As many of the tasks of pastoral ministry have been stripped away from us during this crisis, we are reduced to core elements once again. It is an opportunity to be children of God, men of prayer, lovers of people, preachers unchained. As our ‘job’ now looks so different, let us dispense with the idea of a job altogether. It was never a job, but a calling. A call to be God’s son, and a call to serve his children in the word and prayer.

Christ in all the Scriptures…but

When it comes to seeing ‘Christ in the Old Testament’, I am definitely not a minimalist. Not just for reasons of principle – but out of my experience – I’m a ‘Christ on every page’ sort of person. I’ve yet to study an Old Testament passage where I couldn’t see a significant connection to Christ. I tend towards the instincts of a Keller than the caution of a Ralph Davis.¹

Yet there are some subtle dangers when it comes to preaching Christ from the Old Testament. 

i) Christ is everywhere in the Old Testament but he’s also the promised one.

God the Son was present in all the history of redemption (John 8:56-57, Hebrews 11:26, Jude 5). He was active in creation, in the exodus and in the time of Israel’s exile. Yet the Old Testament predominantly presents God the Son as the promised one (Genesis 3:15, 49:8-12, Numbers 24:17, 2 Samuel 7). Scripture itself encourages us to see God the Son as anticipated by the Old Covenant. His appearance in the New Covenant era is climactic (Galatians 4:4, 1 John 3:8, Hebrews 1:1-2). Christ is consistently revealed in the Bible, but also increasingly revealed. So don’t rush too quickly from the Old to the New. Don’t imply that it would always have been obvious to Jewish saints that what was happening to them, what they saw and heard, spoke of Christ. Linger for a while in the Hebrew text where things start true but sometimes vague. Then take things forward from the early dawn to the noon-day sun.

ii) Christ is everywhere in the Old Testament but don’t neglect the Trinity.

Sometimes evangelical preachers sound more like Modalists than Trinitarians. When we preach the Old Testament – and even when we bring its teaching forward to the age of fulfilment – we should note that it reveals not just the Son, but the Godhead. Christian writers in recent years have pointed out the dangers of an exclusive focus on the Son. We do not honour Christ when we squeeze the Father and Spirit out of our preaching. Some excellent books have emerged on this topic of lately – including: The Deep Things of God (Sanders), The Good God: Enjoying Father, Son and Spirit (Reeves) and Delighting in the Trinity (Chester).

iii) Christ is everywhere in the Old Testament but there are moral examples too.

Preaching that is heavy on ‘to do’ has been given a bad wrap in some circles.² Detached from Christ, such preaching leads to the hubris of self-help or the despair of self examination. But ‘preaching the law’ so to speak (when properly done) can both lead us to Christ and be a response to his grace. Further, the New Testament sometimes uses the Old Testament to either warn us of sin or give an example of godliness (1 Corinthians 10:1, James 5:17, Hebrews 11, 12:1).

iv) Christ is everywhere in the Old Testament but beware of artificial links.

The five stones that David picked up to slay Goliath do not represent the five books of the Pentateuch… which represent the law that is fulfilled in Christ…which then matches up with the five teaching blocks that are found in Matthew’s gospel. This is an extreme example, but it highlights the dangers of allegorizing and making unlikely links. Only by steeping ourselves in Scripture will we develop a greater instinct for what is a legitimate connection and what is just arbitrary and fanciful.


¹ I hasten to add that Dale Ralph Davis is something of a genius. I have gleaned so much from him in understanding OT narrative. However he is undoubtedly cautious: “I am convinced that I do not honour Christ by forcing him into a text where he is not.” (p 138, Word became fresh)

² “The word moralising can be used like a flame-thrower to intimidate people, and it can be used as damagingly. In every real preacher there is an instinct to use the Old Testament in an exemplary way, and I would encourage you to follow this instinct uninhibitedly and unapologetically – in the context, of course, of the history of redemption, linking it to Christ (his life, his cross, his resurrection, his ascension, his Lordship, the coming of his Spirit). This exemplary preaching, for want of a better word, has always been a mark of relevant, searching, applied preaching, and we need not be intimidated away from it as there is ample New Testament warrant for it.” (Ted Donnelly,

An Application Disaster Class

 *Warning: this article may be laced with a heavy dose of sarcasm*

Welcome to my Disaster Class in the ‘art’ of preaching blunt sermons! Having been a regular practioner of pointless sermons, I am thoroughly qualified to coach those less initiated in these matters. Follow these steps and I personally guarantee you, your sermon application will at least be bad, if not be a total bust!   Bear in mind, too, that there are no less, or more, than seven points. Do I even need to say that you can trust this as the final word on the subject?


1. Intepret the text wrong. This is a great place to start! As everyone knows, faithful application of the passage begins with faithful interpretation.¹ But this ‘study thing’ is a whole lot of work! So grab a latte, Preacher; close those headache-inducing commentaries. Stop sweating about those passages and what they mean! I reckon that 7 times out of 10, you’ll get the meaning of the passage right anyway with only a quick skim.

2. Ignore application or minimise it. The best bit about this one is that we can sound spiritual while doing less work! Assume then that the Spirit will do the application ‘for’ you. (Doesn’t the Spirit apply God’s Word to the human heart?²). If you must include application, why not consign it to being ‘tagged on at the end.’ Whatever you do, don’t see the whole message as a word from God to save, sanctify and equip people to serve! (2 Timothy 3:14-17).

3. Springboard quickly from the text to whatever you want to speak about. Is the subject prayer? Great! Leap off into a rant about whatever aspect of the church’s prayer life is bothering you at the moment!  Ignore what this specific text is saying about prayer. That way, your thoughts on prayer will be heard, not the Bible’s.

4. Be general, vague and samey in your sermon applications. Don’t allow the text to push you towards areas of application that are fresh or helpful. Especially stay away from applications that the church may not want to hear (hint: subjects like money, use of the tongue, anything to do with the heart). Keep the applications in a general territory! ‘Read your Bible’, ‘pray every day’ and ‘evangelise more’ are the basic touch points here. Or my personal favourite: just finish with the line… ‘Go and do likewise, Amen!’

5. Think that application always equals doing. You should always be able to tell people what to do, and how to do at. As prescriptively as possible! Let’s ignore that the New Testament itself is not always prescriptive in the how of application. And let’s conveniently forget that application involves our thoughts and desires, as well as our actions.

6. Let’s only apply in ways that suit our temperament. Are we the gentler, comforting type? Then tame those texts that seem a bit too challenging! Apologise to the congregation that the Bible might be a bit “heavy” or “strong” this morning. Are we an in-your-face, prophetic type? Are we never more happy than when wagging a finger? Then let’s find ways of turning even the most comforting texts into a “challenge.” Even Psalm 23 can be used to crush those wayward sheep (if we ignore its entire tone, content and purpose)!

7. Apply without any reference to Jesus. This is the most important point, if we want to completely undermine a sermon’s usefulness! Leave Jesus out when we apply the message, and people will be wondering whether they just sat through a Christian message at all! In addition, people will feel discouraged and overwhelmed. Having been dispirited in their failure to apply God’s word, they will have no gospel-comfort to lift them from despondency! Added into the bargain, they won’t know the encouragement and power that the gospel brings to our obedience. All in all, if you fail to do recommendations 1 to 6, just do 7 and you’ll render your sermon completely ineffective.

Yours truly,

The Pointless Preacher


¹ Though hopefully what you say will still be ‘biblically’ true – in a wider sense. 

² The Spirit, of course, applies God’s Word, but this didn’t stop New Testament preachers to calling for repentance, faith and obedience to specific commands.

Blessed Are The Critics

Shifting my weight from foot to foot, with all the uncertainty befitting a novice, I said goodbye to the faithful as they exited “the Chapel.”¹ I was dazed in the manner that every preacher is, five minutes post benediction – when you can’t compute where you are or quite how you got there.

I extended a sweaty hand to anyone feeling generous. What entered my grasp however was not a hand, but a note.

The stranger instantly scarpered, leaving me to uncrumple the curious parchment. In seconds I had read her raggedly written review:

“Too many points. Your headings – not distinct enough. You need to put in FAR MORE effort before you preach!” 


For patently obvious reasons, that feedback has stuck in my unsticky memory. Yet on countless other occasions (‘at many times and in various ways’!) my sermons have been on the receiving end of critique.

What shall we say then?

Jars Of Clay

Let’s start by readily admitting that our sermons are often worthy of criticism. We’re not trying to get things wrong (indeed we’re all too aware of a stricter judgement upon bible teachers). But inevitably and often, we do fall short of the expository mark. It may be factual mistakes, interpretative errors² or some lack in clarity or delivery.³ God’s Word is perfect – his human messengers, not so much! 

Effusive praise of sermons then is almost always unwarranted  (praise is not the same thing as encouragement).  It’s probably also the case that many sermons aren’t as bad as some critics attest. The two common categories – ‘brilliant’ or ‘bad’ – are a far too frequent comment in the aftermath of sermons. In most evangelical churches, most sermons are faithful but fallible attempts to proclaim God’s gloriously infallible word. It is by God’s astounding grace that he uses such weak and feeble instruments as human preachers.

The Blessing Of Critics

So how might a sermon-critic be a blessing to the preacher of the word?

To begin with, they not only aid the herald’s preaching (sometimes); they encourage their sanctified progress  (always). How an expositor responds to criticism reveals not just the condition of their sermons, but their hearts. Pride, people-pleasing and placing my identity in ministry, are often graciously exposed when I chafe at a critical comment upon my preaching. Whether the critic is right or wrong is – in one sense – immaterial. What emerges from the sewer of my heart is often far more telling! 

Second, critics play their part because they help me assess the people to whom I am preaching. Biblical preaching is unchanging in content – but the context into which we preach is particular and variable. I need to know who I am speaking to. And for that, I need to listen. This means not just hearing feedback from the most theologically knowledgeable members, but from the average punter in the pew. Are they able to follow me? Is my preaching connecting with them?  (And if not, why not?). 

Further, when the same criticism comes from multiple people, my ears  tend to prick up. If a handful of people thought that illustration was unhelpful – or if several tell me that my conclusion went ’round and round’  – I will usually take that to heart and seek to learn from it.

I also try to bear in mind that when someone disagrees with an aspect of my sermon, they are not necessarily disagreeing with all of it! There’s a difference!

Building Up, Not Tearing Down

If we are the givers of feedback, how can we do it wisely?

a) I think it’s generally unhelpful to give strong critique in the immediate aftermath of a message. The preacher has just preached his soul out. In most cases, they have given God and the church their very best offering. They are exhausted, vulnerable and, don’t forget, human. It’s  good to bear this in mind if we’re planning on speaking the truth in love!  If we  offer critique, we should ensure that we say some positive things as well (if there are any!).

b) It’s worth considering too whether a criticism that could be given, always should be given. The wise parent will not ‘pick up’ on every infraction of a child. They know that there are times to cover over sin – for wisdom’s sake and sanity. And there are also times to check it. An overly long sermon conclusion, for example, may be a characteristic pattern – or it may just be a bad day at the office! A one-off story that seems to paint the preacher a bit too favourable might be the beginning of a pattern, or it may be just a one-off.

c) Be stronger in critiquing the substance of a message than the style. Not that style is unimportant but it is often linked to personality and preferences. We might not like non-linear sermons, without clear development of logic. We might struggle with preachers who are somewhat more Johanine than Pauline in their approach. But as long as the preacher is faithful to Christ and the text, we should critique their style farless than their substance. After all, we’re trying to encourage preachers; not create an army of ‘expository clones’! 

d) Pre-sermon feedback is even better than after the fact. Critique afterwards cannot improve the sermon preached! But evaluation before can lead to adjustments. This being the case, I often let my wife pre read my sermons. I also tend to’ ‘talk through’ my message with several other people during the week.

e) We need to examine our hearts when we’re giving critical feedback. Why are we doing it? Is it out of love for the person? Is it fortheir good and the congregations? Or am I trying to look clever, to put the preacher in his place, or avoid the challenge of the sermon?

The Feedback That Matters Most

There is a kind of feedback that we never ought to listen to. It’s that call to change the message because it seems too hard, too miraculous, too out of step with culture, or too narrowly exclusive. If the preacher preaches God’s Word, not everyone will want to hear them – and criticism will come. Yet we mustn’t see everyone as a devil who seeks to lovingly and truthfully critique!

And never forget too, that while we work hard at our sermons, we are not justified by them. The perfect homiletical construction never saved our soul, or anyone else’s. Sticking to Jesus and his word, the gospel in the Spirit’s power, is what will inevitably bring about the increase.

¹ Charlotte Baptist Chapel in Edinburgh.

² No less than Mark Dever tweeted this week that one of his elders picked him up on some interpretive errors he made in a sermon regarding John the Baptist.

³ I once said in a sermon something along the lines of “God intends to harm you”, when I actually had meant to say “Satan.” In the context of what I’d been saying, it was hopefully clear to the congregation what I had meant. They were gracious. (And I only found out afterwards from my wife!)

Entering The Storm

I’m both daunted and excited to have begun a 6 part sermon series on Job with my church. These studies are likely to be moving, thought-provoking, but above all, I pray,  faith-strengthening. Here are some thoughts to help orientate us as we approach this book of darkness and storm.


1. Job was a historical individual. Ezekiel and the New Testament say so (Ezekiel 14:14, James 5:11).

2. Job is highly poetic but it isn’t a parable. Like the flood account in Genesis, the description is highly stylised but the events are real.

3. The aim of Job is to equip God-fearers and God-trusters to go on fearing and trusting him when calamity comes. When they do so, this is wisdom (Job is part of the wisdom genre of bible books).

4. There are three main parts to Job: prose A (ch 1-2), poetry (ch 3 – 42:6), prose B (ch 42:7-17). The poetry reflects the long, emotional wrestle with suffering. It is long, because suffering isn’t easily untangled. The prose, though short, gives the context to the poetry.

5. The glimpses into the heavenly court (in ch 1 & 2) give the reader a key insight into things unseen. But these heavenly events are a mystery to Job. Key point: WE SHOULDN’T EXPECT TO KNOW THE REASONS FOR EVERYTHING WE SUFFER.

6. God is ultimately sovereign over all things. Satan is accountable to him and must ask for permission to harm Job. The Bible doesn’t present a Star Wars universe, but a cosmos in which God reigns over all things.

7. God’s ultimate control does raise some hard questions (eg. can God permit suffering and still be said to be good?). But let’s be clear on what the Bible insists in Job and elsewhere:

  • God is not the author of evil
  • God is good in all he does
  • God is able to superintend evil actions for his glory

8. What is more comforting: to think that God is not in complete charge, or to know that he is sovereign over every event and circumstance – even the most calamitous?

9. The heart of the book of Job is the question raised by Satan: does Job fear God for nothing? (1:9). The big question in Job is whether God is worthy of worship of fear, trust and love simply for being who he is.

10. Are we loyal to God only when he gives us what we want?

11. Little did Job know that his sufferings on earth was winning God a great victory in heaven over the forces of evil! Who knows what our sufferings are achieving in God’s purposes. Just because we cannot see a good purpose, doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

12. Connections between Jesus and Job should be obvious: Jesus was the blameless/innocent sufferer – there was no one else like him on the earth. Satan and evil men afflicted him but it was God’s sovereign plan. When afflicted, Jesus trusted and feared the Lord without sinning.

13. One more point (since informed by Job, we don’t believe in ‘luck’): The stoic faith and worship of chapters 1 and 2 need to be seen alongside the harrowing cries and darkness of Job’s lament in chapter 3. Don’t think it is easy to trust God in the storm. But it is possible.

Why preaching MIGHT be a walk in the park

pexels-photo-730894Some of my sermon preparation doesn’t look like preparation.  In all honesty it can look rather like walking.

I’m doing this more and more: going for a gander, Thursdays, in a verdant country park. Among the dog walkers and grounds maintainers, there I am wandering the paths of Pollok.

To the uninitiated, I look like a man on a morning stroll. I might be noticed to be glancing at my phone, or muttering under my breath, but the true purpose of my walk is probably obscure.

What I’m actually doing is biblical meditation. Having read myself full on my subject, I’m looking over my notes¹ and starting to wrestle. This is like the part in the baking process where the dough is being kneaded. The ingredients are all there, but before you can bake the finished product, you need to ‘work’ them.

This is where I’m especially praying for insight. “Lord, help me see what you’re saying to us through this text!” “Father help me apply this – to myself and to others.”

This is where I’m asking questions. What is the central truth I need to communicate? What will be the sermon’s structure? What will be the order, the flow of the message?

And after I’ve asked these questions, I ask even more questions.  How might I introduce all this? What needs to be explained, and what doesn’t? What does it say to the young, the old, the sad, the joyful, the encouraged, the discouraged, the believer and the unbeliever?

  • I churn. I ponder. I ruminate. And as I mull things over, a conflagration of things start to happen. They don’t come in a particular order. They just emerge, somewhat at random, from my mind.
  • I see the point I really must start with.
  • I glimpse a “connection to Christ” that makes my heart sing.
  • Proportions start to emerge – I see what is significant, and what might be less so.
  • Lines from hymns come to me.
  • I’m reminded of an incident from my own life that illustrates a point in the passage.
  • I remember a book that has a great section on this topic.
  • I see a connection between something happening in this week’s news and the text.
  • I think of a person in the congregation for whom a certain point may be close to the bone.
  • I think of another for whom a certain verse will be a particular comfort.
  • Then suddenly, a flash of creativity. A phrase comes – a powerful way to capture the whole sermon.
  • A ‘way in’ to the talk comes to me, or a structure that seems to be simple and unforced. (This is the 1% of inspiration that accompanies the 99% perspiration!)
  • I pause and praise God! The help of his Spirit!

As I return to my office an hour later, it may look like I’ve gone for a walk.² What has really transpired is an important stage in my sermon prep. I have thought the sermon over in my own mind. I have started to build a bridge between study and sermon. When I sink back into my chair, I’m ready to write a sermon plan. As I return to my blank screen I now have something to write. I have direction! The embryo of a sermon!

¹ The notes compiled from my exegesis and commentary reading on a Tuesday and Wednesday.

² As an alternative in colder months I either wander up and down the church aisles, or stand and write on the whiteboard as I meditate upon the passage.

30 Minutes Or Less: Why Less Is Sometimes More

In the last church I served I often preached for 45 minutes. One time when I fell short of that mark a dear brother encouraged me to “give us a little more.” From that point onward, I frequently did.


Now just for the record, I’m not against 45 minute sermons. I’m not against them, any more than I’m against a 60 minute preach; or one that’s done and dusted in 20 flat. Despite what people tell you there isn’t a rule about sermon length.

What needs to be applied is wisdom – something that is always more complicated than law. There are a nexus of considerations  (the cultural context, the preacher’s ability, the passage – to name but a few) that may be factors in deciding what duration might be edifying.

But let me come totally clean. Since returning to Glasgow, I’ve reduced my time in the pulpit. I preach for around 30 minutes. OK, sometimes it’s more like 35 (I’m verbose), but I do try to manage it.

Now depending on your perspective, that either sounds painfully long or restrictively short. I can say with some confidence, that there is a desire in our church to hear God’s Word. But I also think we value preachers getting to the point.

Not waffling is seen as a virtue. Tangents are seen as a vice. Overwhelming the listener with verbosity is not the goal of regular preaching.

So how have I (and the church?) benefitted from me preaching shorter sermons?

Less intrusive intros

Back in days gone by, I could have spent 5 to 7 minutes on an intro. These grand sermon entrances took oodles of time to construct. They were the most time consuming part of my  sermon prep, yet they arguably added little to my message.

In some cases, they may have even been a distraction. (Do extended intros perhaps subtly give the impression that there is something more interesting to say than what is in the text?). Though I still see the value of introductions, I now follow ‘the one paragraph or two’ rule before getting to the sermon body.  Intros should introduce, not intrude upon the message! 

Commentating less, summarising more

Some of my past sermons probably sounded like a verbal commentary. Though I’ve never preached ‘verse by verse’, I’ve often been explanation heavy. The background would need to be unpacked. The details  would have to be analysed so that we would know as much about the passage as humanly possible.

Of course I still believe that context matters, and I am sold on examining some of the details in the text. But having less time to preach has forced me to prioritise. And I’m learning from experience that not everything needs to be explained. Nor is everything equally important. In fact, the big truths of a passage can sometimes be lost in our comprehensive commentary!

Less controversy

Because of the shortage of time there is little scope for excurses into controversy. Don’t get me wrong: I sometimes take 5 minutes on a difficult matter. If the issue is important enough, I will lay out different interpretive views and then explain my own. But with many bible passages this is just not possible. When recently I preached on Revelation 11 I found that almost every verse was disputed! You can’t in 30 minutes get into the thick of every issue.

The upside, however, is that sermons don’t get stuck in an interpretive quagmire. At the end of the day we are preaching passages, not debating them. If I want to say more about an issue, I may encourage people to ask me questions afterwards.  I might recommend a book or maybe write a blog post!

More application

You’d assume that preaching for longer would guarantee more sermon application. But this isn’t always the case. I actually reckon I’m taking more time these days in showing the passages’ significance. Better summary and selectivity leaves more space for the ‘so what’ question.

As I recently listened to some of my favourite bible teachers, I was surprised by how much time they spent applying. Part of the blessing of gifted preachers is that they explain things concisely. They leave enough space to show the relevance of the text. Application, paradoxically, is something that shorter sermons may help us do better.