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!

Giftedness

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.

Perplexed, Not Despairing (3)

 

 

 

 

 

FEAR: THE GOOD AND THE DANGEROUS

Source: Paul Tripp, Dangerous Calling (p128)

Quote:

“There is a fear that causes you to be watchful and to protect the people in your ministry from the dangers of the real evil that exists both inside and outside of them. Eyes-wide-open, gospel-driven, sin-warring fear that at the same time rests in the grace of Jesus is a very good way to live in a world that itself is still groaning, waiting for redemption.

[But] Fear can overwhelm your senses. It can distort your thinking. It can kidnap your desires. It can capture your meditation so that you spend more time worrying about what others think than about what God has called you to be.

Fear can cause you to make bad decisions quickly and fail to make good decisions in the long run. Fear can cause you to forget what you know and to lose sight of who you are. Fear can make you wish for control that you will never have. It can cause you to be demanding rather than serving. It can cause you to run when you should stay and stay when you really should run.

Fear can make God look small and your circumstances loom large. Fear can make you seek from people what you will only get from the Lord. Fear can be the soil of your deepest questions and your biggest doubts.

Your heart was wired by fear, because you were designed to have a life that is shaped by fear of God. But horizontal fear cannot be allowed to rule your heart, because if it does, it will destroy you and your ministry.”

Comment: Fear has been lurking around my heart during this last week of change. In my better moments the fear involves a rightful concern for the church – one that even the Apostle Paul might have resonated with (2 Cor 11:28). More often, however, my fears arise from a less devout source. “The fear of man will prove to be a snare” (Prov 29:25) and I’ve caught in it’s trap more often than a godly man should have. The levels of stress I’ve felt around video messages, and worries around the opinions of others concerning the leadership calls we are making, are evidence of my own weakness. But these fears “that make God look small” mustn’t rule my heart. The fear of man (or of anything else) must be overwhelmed by a greater fear: the fear of God.

Perplexed, Not Despairing (2)

QUALITY OF LIFE

Source: Derek Prime & Alistair Begg, On Being A Pastor (p 86)

Quote:

“Some lessons we learn slowly, and one that we have found particularly difficult is that God wants quality of life from us rather than quantity of service, and that the latter is no substitute for the former. More important than all our preparation for ministry and our careful administration of church life is that we should live our lives for the will of God and reflect His Son’s grace and character in all our dealings with others.

The most powerful influence we can have upon people is example. The strength of our example – of which we ourselves are seldom, if ever, aware – comes from the reality and sincerity of our inner and secret life with God. Moral failures, which can so tragically ruin a man’s testimony and terminate his ministry, invariably stem from neglected daily fellowship with God. Walking daily in the light increases sensitivity to the first approaches of temptation and sin and strengthens our capacity to resist it by the power of the Spirit.

Comment: In these days, when we face the pressure to produce more and more content for isolated people, and where we rightly feel the need to stay in contact with the vulnerable, this quote highlights a vulnerability closer to home. Quantity of ministry eventually has its limits. At some point we will regretfully neglect our own walk with God and paying attention to our own soul. Cast in the positive light, ‘walking daily in the light’ carries it’s own exemplary power. May I never forget this!

Ten Quick Suggestions For Reading Old Testament Narrative

In the preaching series in our church we currently delving into the book of 2nd Samuel. It’s a fascinating story with lots of twists and turns. But the question often arises how best are we to read it? This ties in with an even broader question: how do we interpret Old Testament narratives generally?

Here are 10 quick suggestions – accompanied by examples from 2nd Samuel.

1) Try and grasp the overall point of the book. 

The overall point of 2nd Samuel is that God is establishing an eternal kingdom through David. Even David’s grotesque sin will not stop the promise and grace of God.

2) Read in big chunks – narrative often tells you ‘a little, in a lot.’

Chapters 2 to 5 of 2nd Samuel are basically about God raising David to power. Of course there’s lots of detail along the way, but the basic point is that David becomes the king of all Israel not through his own scheming and machinations. God engineers his rise.

3) Narratives tell you what happened, not what SHOULD have happened.

David shouldn’t have taken many concubines and wives to strengthen his political position. But he did it anyway (2 Sam 5:13-15). Likewise, the fact that Scripture reports Amnon’s abuse of Tamar doesn’t mean the Bible approves of it (2 Sam 13).

4) OT narrative is first and foremost about God: his holiness, grace, salvation and justice.

In 2nd Samuel we see that God puts David in power (2-5). God is holy and worthy of worship (6). God establishes an eternal kingdom (7). God gives his king and people the victory (8, 10). God is merciful to enemies (9). God is a disciplining Father, but forgiving (11-20). God is our rock, our fortress and our Saviour (21-24).

5) Moralise…but not too much. 

It’s not wrong to draw moral lessons from the good or bad behaviour of characters in the Old Testament. The New Testament sometimes does this. We definitely shouldn’t lie like the Amalekite (1). We should pray before big decisions (2:1). And we should hold one another accountable when we sin (11). Yet these probably aren’t the most important points in the passage!

6) Repetition is a clue to what the passage is about. 

The confrontation between King David and his wife Michal could be interpreted in various ways (6:20-23). But repetition in the passage helps us to properly understand it. Three times Michal is called the “daughter of Saul.” (6:16, 20, 23). This is likely implying that she is his daughter in character, not just biology. Michal has the same godless mindset as Saul – she is fixated on personal glory, rather than God’s glory.

7) Don’t get bogged down in what the narrative DOESN’T tell you.

Why did David not take stronger action against Joab after his general killed Abner in cold blood (2 Sam 3)? Was David’s reticence due to family ties with Joab? Did he feel the legal case against Joab was in some way “unclear”? (Abner had killed Joab’s brother in battle). Was this just down right hypocrisy? The text doesn’t tell us… What the author is more concerned about is that David is innocent of Abner’s death (3:28, 37).

8) Place names and people names are always important. 

David goes up to “Hebron” – a place associated with Abraham (2:1). Implication: God is going to move forward the promises made to Abraham now through David!

The name “Ishbosheth” (Ishbosheth was a rival to David for the throne) was probably not an original name. It means “man of shame.” This is more like a nickname he was given – it implies that this man was doing something shameful by seeking to usurp God’s plan of making David king.

9) When the writer’s “point of view” is revealed, you’ve just found gold. 

“But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD” (2 Samuel 11:27). Now we know how to read the passage before.

10) The New Testament ultimately fulfils whatever narrative you are in and is the supreme ‘commentary’ on your passage.

Are there themes in the passage that find their fulfilment in Christ? (kingship, God’s presence, victory over God’s enemies, mercy to enemies, sin and forgiveness).

How does King David point us to Christ – positively and negatively?

How does the sin in this passage reveal our need of God’s future kingdom?

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, https://banneroftruth.org/uk/resources/articles/2014/six-principles-preaching-christ-old-testament/)

Where is Christ in the Old Testament?

In at least 7 places: God, sin, offices, events, prophecies, themes and symbols/memorials.

God – We often fail to read the Old Testament in a Trinitarian way. Every reference to Yahweh (“LORD”) – unless we are told otherwise – speaks of the triune God. This means the divine attributes that emerge from the passage can be understood to apply to Jesus Christ. The LORD who creates, speaks, redeems and judges is Lord Jesus Christ.

Sin. Sometimes an Old Testament text is awash with depravity. It is not a misstep to see Christ as the antithesis to this. The saviour from such sin – or the judge if we don’t repent – is Christ.

Offices. This is a biggie. I think we find this almost everywhere in the Old Testament. Many “offices” or roles are fulfilled in Christ, positively or negatively. The prophets, priests and kings are the obvious ones, but don’t fail to notice how a patriarch, one of the judges or even “God’s son” Israel might point us to Christ. Remember too that David’s Psalms are much the richer when we consider that their author is the LORD’s anointed.

Events. Unfolding biblical events often reveal the gospel. This is obvious in major events like the flood, exodus and exile. Any event that illustrates salvation and judgement bring us to those main train-tracks that run all the way to the cross and the new creation. But even smaller events can reveal the character and work of Christ: the LORD passing between the animal pieces (Genesis 15), Jacob’s dream at Bethel (Genesis 28) or Joseph’s rejection of Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39) are all Christ-revealing occasions.

Prophecies. This is the most obvious link. Sometimes an Old Testament passage is said by the New Testament to be directly fulfilled in Christ (eg. Psalm 22:1, Micah 5:2).

Themes. For want of a better word, there are some themes that run through the whole of Scripture. Examples: creation, covenant, glory, temple, presence, weakness, resurrection, persecution, cosmic conflict, kingdom, inheritance. These can all be applied in a Christ-centred way.

Objects/memorials. Places that are “named”, altars that are given a title, and even objects in the text can point us to Christ. Examples of objects include: the ark of the covenant, Aaron’s staff, the rock in the wilderness that brought forth water, the manna from heaven.

Postscript: This list is currently hanging on my wall as a little prompt in my preparation. Though I’ve put it in my own words I am hugely indebted to the likes of Clowney, Carson, Keller and Millar/Campbell for helping me see these connections.

Where is Christ in the Old Testament?

In at least 7 places: God, sin, offices, events, prophecies, themes and symbols/memorials.

God – We often fail to read the Old Testament in a Trinitarian way. Every reference to Yahweh (“LORD”) – unless we are told otherwise – speaks of the triune God. This means the divine attributes that emerge from the passage can be understood to apply to Jesus Christ. The LORD who creates, speaks, redeems and judges is Lord Jesus Christ.

Sin. Sometimes an Old Testament text is awash with depravity. It is not a misstep to see Christ as the antithesis to this. The saviour from such sin – or the judge if we don’t repent – is Christ.

Offices. This is a biggie. I think we find this almost everywhere in the Old Testament. Many “offices” or roles are fulfilled in Christ, positively or negatively. The prophets, priests and kings are the obvious ones, but don’t fail to notice how a patriarch, one of the judges or even “God’s son” (Israel) might point us to Christ. Remember too that David’s Psalms are much the richer when we consider that their author is the LORD’s anointed.

Events. Unfolding biblical events often reveal the gospel. This is obvious in major events like the flood, exodus and exile. Any event that illustrates salvation and judgement bring us to those main train-tracks that run all the way to the cross and the new creation. But even smaller events can reveal the character and work of Christ: the LORD passing between the animal pieces (Genesis 15), Jacob’s dream at Bethel (Genesis 28) or Joseph’s rejection of Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39) are all Christ-revealing occasions.

Prophecies. This is the most obvious link. Sometimes an Old Testament passage is said by the New Testament to be directly fulfilled in Christ (eg. Psalm 22:1, Micah 5:2).

Themes. For want of a better word, there are some themes that run through the whole of Scripture. Examples: creation, covenant, glory, temple, presence, weakness, resurrection, persecution, cosmic conflict, kingdom, inheritance. These can all be applied in a Christ-centred way.

Objects/memorials. Places that are “named”, altars that are given a title, and even objects in the text can point us to Christ. Examples of objects include: the ark of the covenant, Aaron’s staff, the rock in the wilderness that brought forth water, the manna from heaven.

Postscript: This list is currently hanging on my wall as a little prompt in my preparation. Though I’ve put it in my own words I am hugely indebted to the likes of Clowney, Carson, Keller and Millar/Campbell for helping me see these connections.

FRANKIN GRAHAM EVENT & THE GLASGOW HYDRO ARENA

(This is a letter I happily put my name to a few days ago. It has been sent to MSPs, local councillors and newspapers)

4 February 2020

The cancellation by the SSE Hydro in Glasgow of the Franklin Graham event is a deeply disturbing decision that is antithetical to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and to true democratic values.  

Franklin Graham is being discriminated against for having on occasions expressed mainstream Judaeo-Christian views on sexuality. His views in this area are not religiously extreme, indeed they simply reflect the historic and orthodox teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England and countless other denominational groups. Like all mainstream Christian leaders Franklin Graham believes that every human being is a precious soul made in the image of God, and thus should be loved and treated with respect accordingly.

The planned event is one in a rich tradition of such Christian activity going back centuries in both Glasgow and the country at large. As Rev. Graham has expressed himself his mission is not political but to make known the good news about Jesus Christ to every person regardless of their sexuality or any other characteristic.

As the leaders representing evangelical churches in the West of Scotland Gospel Partnership, we want to express our consternation and deep-seated fears at this discriminatory act against a faith group that has faithfully served the civic good of our city for generations.   

Christians disagree about many things, but Christians all agree that respect for religious freedom and freedom of speech is fundamental to a free society. Therefore, we ask that the SSE Hydro management, and those political leaders who have influence in such matters, reverse this decision.

A failure to do so would be an ominous move towards a less free society and one that will in time have serious repercussions for the civic liberties of all.

On behalf the West of Scotland Gospel Partnership,

Rev. Colin Adams (Greenview Church, Glasgow)

Rev. Dr William Philip (The Tron Church, Glasgow)

Rev. Alan McKnight (Harper Church, Glasgow)

Rev. John MacKinnon (Calderwood Baptist Church, East Kilbride)

Rev. Dr Andrew Gemmill (Cornhill Training Scotland)

Rev. Craig Dyer (Christianity Explored Ministries)

Rev. Andrew Hunter (Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches).

Something You Could Pray For Preachers

Heavenly Father,

I pray for those who preach your Word regularly. Thank you for calling them to yourself and by your mercy giving them this ministry.

Enable them to live with Christ-like integrity, so that their conduct doesn’t make a mockery of the things they preach. Help them set an example in every respect: in the words they say, the actions they choose, the love the show, the purity they display.

Grant them the sure conviction that all of the Scriptures are God-breathed and useful. Guard them from pride on the one hand and complacency on the other. May they fan their gift into flame, diligently using it and not neglecting it.

In the study, inspire them to labour. Open their eyes to see those very wonderful things that are in your Word. Give them clarity of thought that will help them understand both the burden of the message and how to convey it.

When they come to preach, give them boldness. May they not cower before men but be as fearless as untamed lions. Help them not to rely on eloquence but to lean on your Word and Spirit as their true wisdom and power.

Would all their speech in the pulpit be seasoned with salt. May they be like Christ and his apostles that followed: feeding the flock, building up the church and doing the work of the evangelist.

May they preach the Word, nothing else! May they exalt Christ, not themselves!

I ask all these things for the glory of your name and the extension of your kingdom.

In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.