Tag Archives: Preaching

Pastors need Mondays

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For many years prior to retirement from pastoring I took Mondays off. I generally took a long walk, did some banking, and pretty much crashed. Since retirement, of course, most days are “days off” so Mondays are pretty much like any other day of the week.

Right now, I’m filling in for a friend who is taking Sabbatical leave so I’m back “on the clock” at least in part. My only real responsibility is preaching the Sunday morning sermon although I’m “being the pastor” in a few other ways as well. I certainly don’t have the full pastoral load.

The interesting thing to me is that that old Monday weariness has returned. It has to be the preaching and maybe interacting with a number of people throughout the day because I’m not doing much else. I confess that I’m not much of a people person, so spending a large part of the day chatting and “being nice” does wear me down a bit. Still, I think the preaching is the biggest part of it.

It’s not as though I’m a high energy, pacing, pulpit pounder. My style is conversational, considerably thought through, and much prayed over. To most non-preachers I know that that doesn’t sound like much and some may accuse me of whining or maybe just of getting old and more easily tired. Honestly, there may be some truth in the second accusation and hopefully none in the first.

However, I think that there’s a least a reminder here that pastors work harder on Sundays than most people think they do, even if all they “do” is preach a sermon for 30-40 minutes. The preparation, both academic and spiritual, takes a toll. The energy spent, even with Spirit anointing, is considerable.

I don’t think I’m just whining or wimping out. Pastors carry a burden that takes a toll and they both need and deserve a Monday day of rest.

Preaching for decisions: know when to land the sermon

I heard a well-prepared, well-delivered sermon that was intended to conclude with an invitation. As the sermon was finished a sweet spirit was evident in the service and I fully expected to see several people respond. The case had been made and the Spirit of the Lord was at work.

But the preacher wouldn’t land the sermon! Instead, we heard one more story followed by yet another application. By the time people were actually given opportunity to respond the moment had faded and the response was meager.

There are two points in the sermon that especially need to be well thought through by the preacher. The first is the first part of the sermon. The other is the closing of the sermon.

I’m not saying that sermons should never include “in flight” direction of the Holy Spirit, even at crucial points (like leading to a call for decisions). However, the preacher needs to be careful to leave the Spirit room to work in the hearts of the listeners and be leery of telling “one more story.”

The biggest single change for pastors

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I was just thinking about the biggest single change I’ve seen in my 45 years of ministry.

One big one was the move away from the KJV to the NIV (or some other modern version) being the most commonly used version of the Bible in our services by preachers. That changed sermons from being, to a large part, translating Shakespearean language to modern English for our listeners to being more focused on the meaning of the text itself.

Another big change was the addition of video to preaching. I know some pastors have yet to move toward it, but the vast majority of our churches have video up at least for scriptures, but often preaching is supplemented by professionally produced videos and clips from popular culture.

A more subtle change is that our listeners now consume a wide variety of teaching ranging from TV and radio preachers to reading books or listening to podcasts from a variety of theological perspectives. This is a major change from the day when the local pastor was the primary source of teaching to those in the congregation. I’ve heard fine lay people repeat stuff that it is clearly incompatible with our doctrines. They’d heard it somewhere, and just accepted it because the speaker is a well known, capable teacher.

I think, though, that the biggest change is the move away from Sunday night services.

As I’ve just been saying, the pastor’s voice is diminished in the lives of church attenders already. So, while people are consuming a variety of religious teaching through the week, most pastors only address their congregations on Sunday mornings during the sermon. That limits the pastor’s influence over the congregation.

I’m not saying, though, that this change is necessarily a bad thing. It was late in my active ministry that our church yielded to the reality that most people simply didn’t want to attend a Sunday night service. And it was only with that change in the church schedule that I had a taste of Sunday being a Christian Sabbath. For many years of my ministry I came to Sunday night exhausted. The concept that the pastor should take a different day as a day of rest never really worked for me. My weekly “day off” was filled with the kinds of things that most everyone does on their days off and not especially restful. I came to greatly appreciate Sunday afternoons as a time to unwind without needing to “reload” for the Sunday evening service.

Beyond that, being able to focus on Sunday morning only made me, I think, a better preacher. All my preparation time was toward one sermon. For non-preachers this may not sound like much but I think most preachers who read this will agree that focusing on one sermon a week makes a huge difference in preaching.

Of all the changes I’ve seen, I think the elimination of Sunday night church is the biggest.

What do you think?

Good Friday is a “No Parking Zone”

parkingThe story of the Crucifixion is powerful. The cross was more an instrument of torture than it was one of execution. Some film makers have made it their mission to portray the agony of the cross with as much graphic realism possible.  Maybe it’s that realism or something else but it seems to me that many Christians are stalled at the cross, thinking it is what Easter is all about.

It’s not. Easter is about victory, hope, and redemption. The only reason to go to Good Friday is because we can’t get to Easter without it. However, the enduring symbol of Christianity isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) a crucifix. Rather, it’s an empty cross. The reason we don’t make a cross with its victim our primary symbol isn’t because we can’t bear seeing Jesus hanging on it. We make an empty cross our primary symbol because Jesus is no longer on the cross. He has defeated it and all it stood for.

So, for believers, Good Friday is a “No Parking Zone.” We spend time on Good Friday remembering the cross and especially the love of Jesus for us that caused him to endure it. But we happily turn the page to Sunday morning, Resurrection Day.

Easter services shouldn’t be about the Crucifixion. References to the cross should be about Christ’s victory over it. If pastors and other church leaders have done their job the ordeal of the cross should have already been brought to the attention of the Church. That paves the way for Easter.  Individuals too should make it their practice to visit the cross on a regular basis, but not park there.  Its the Resurrection that transforms the crucifix into an empty cross and its the Resurrection that should be our primary focus.  Let’s turn the page from Good Friday and celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord and what it means to us.

Contemporary Worship: things that bug me

No, I’m not going to complain about the style of music or being asked to stand through the song -er- worship service. Here are three contemporary worship services practices that I am seeing that bug me.

  1. Volume of instruments in the praise band. This may surprise you, but I’m not talking about the music being too loud. We seldom come away from a service in a church of our flavor (Church of the Nazarene) thinking the music is too loud. What I do hear fairly often, though, is unbalanced volume from the various instruments in the band. Often, even when the stage has several instruments, the only two I can hear clearly are the strumming of the worship leader on the guitar and the drummer. If you closed your eyes you would think that was all there was: no keyboard, no bass, no second guitar. Of course there are variations to that. Sometimes the music guy plays keyboard and it’s the keyboard you hear. Really, if you are going to recruit instrumentalists to your praise band and have them come to rehearsal it’s reasonable that your music and sound people work together to balance the sound. Obviously, there are exemptions – maybe you have a not-so-talented musician that you want to encourage by having them sit in. Aside from that, though, an effort needs to be made to equalize the sound.
  2. Self-serve communion. It is becoming more common to put the communion elements out and announce to the congregation that during the next song they can come and receive communion if they want. I can’t tell you what poor symbolism I think this is. Communion isn’t a self-serve event. It isn’t an “if you want it” kind of ordinance. Just continuing with the music portion of the service as though communion is just a side line misses the mark. I love communion and I think it has enough spiritual “weight” to hold it’s own in a service. I don’t mind the ritual being updated in some reasonable ways, but I want the pastor to lend his/her authority to the serving of the sacrament.  It bugs me to hear the pastor taking time to do announcements as though that is really important stuff but leaving the serving of the Lord’s Supper on automatic as though it’s just an optional part of that Sunday’s worship service.
  3. Preaching from floor level rather than the platform. I understand the desire of pastors to be informal and approachable during the sermon. I understand that in a contemporary worship service the speaker doesn’t want to appear preachy. Apparently, a lot of pastors have decided that, not only do they not want a pulpit, but they want to be down front rather than on the stage looking down on people. But let me tell you what happens out in the seats: some of us spend the whole sermon trying to look around the people in front of us. After awhile I gain a whole new appreciation for Zacchaeus of New Testament fame who climbed a tree so he could get a glimpse of Jesus. If the speaker would just stand on the platform we could all see him or her. Some pastors think they are enhancing their communication effort by staying off the platform, but I think they are shooting themselves in the foot by creating an absolutely unnecessary distraction.

Any time I see young adults in the church who are really into worship it blesses my heart and I’m happily convinced that a lot of contemporary churches are doing a lot of things right.  Still, I have to confess that these things bug me.

How about you?

My how things have changed

As a young preacher (and I started preaching at age 16) I was encouraged to use lots of Scripture references in my preaching.  I probably overdid it and over time dialed things back, especially as I moved away from proof texting.

Still, I often mention different verses in a sermon, generally to give an example of what I’m talking about.

At first, I took strips of paper and numbered them in the order of verses I intended to mention.  I bookmarked my Bible with those bits of paper so I could easily find the verses.  As you can guess, it wasn’t a very good plan and sometimes left me searching, first for that numbered slip of paper and, not seeing it for some reason, for the passage itself.

My next plan of action was to type the verse directly into my notes.   That solved the slips of paper problem and worked okay.  However, at some point it dawned on me that I was going to be typing some verses many times in my preaching career.

 So, I hit upon a plan.  Every time I referred to a verse, I’d take time to type it onto a 3×5 card.  In my sermon notes, I simply included the reference.  I’d organize the cards in order for that sermon, then, after the service, I’d file the cards by book of the Bible.

From that point on a part of sermon preparation was to go through my Bible verse file and see if I’d already added the verses I wanted for the sermon.  I’d add the news ones for that sermon and then file them after the sermon.

As you can guess, after 20 years of so of preaching, I developed quite a file system.  It was so useful that it crossed my mind that the file box and cards needed to be placed into the hands of some young preacher when my preaching days were over.

Then in the mid-1990’s I added a computer to my study and things began to change.  I now had the Bible in electronic form and in multiple translations.  Inserting the text of a verse into the sermon notes was a simple copy/paste process.  My extensive collection of 3×5 cards was no longer necessary.

For years the file box remained on my desk simply because that is where it had always been.  Finally, needing desk space, I moved it to storage in the attic.  There it stayed for several years until today.

I decided it was time for me to clear out the attic and there, covered with dust, was my old file box of scriptures.  In spite of the countless hours of work represented by those 3×5 cards it was time for it to go.  I reluctantly brought the poor old filebox down, took these final photos of it, and put it all in the recycle bin.  Just awhile ago the pickup crew came, and not knowing or caring what was in the bin, carried it off.

Looking back on my system, I think I hit on a good plan.  I accomplished exactly what needed to be accomplished.  Not only that, but by typing out the passages, I became more intimate with them.

Still, over time, things change and the need for that approach is now part of my personal past.  Happily, even though the way I handled the Bible has changed, I’m glad to report that it’s message is just as current and needed as ever before.

Preaching Advice for Young Pastors: Preach an “Annual Message”

At the beginning of your ministry in your new assignment (even better, as a part of your considering becoming pastor of the church and the church considering you as a potential pastor) lay out your philosophy of ministry in a sermon. Talk about the kind of pastor you aspire to be and the kind of church you want to pastor. Make it a Biblical, scripture-based sermon, but at the same time, share your heart with the congregation.

A year after you arrive, on your anniversary Sunday, preach that same sermon again. Let it remind you and them of what your ministry is all about.

Then, as years pass, you probably won’t preach that sermon annually, but every two or three years get it out, update it, and preach it again. It will be good for you to restate your hopes as a pastor. It will also be good for your congregation to be reminded of what you told them you would do (or not do) as their pastor. It will help new people get on board as they better understand what you and the church are about. Also, over time, it will create a sense of celebration of your partnership in ministry.

Learning to laugh at yourself

I know that preaching is serious business and I take it seriously. Still, there’s a place for humor – not as an add on that sticks out like a sore thumb, but as part of an illustration that helps drive home an important truth.

Then, there’s the unintentional humor that happens at sometimes unwelcome times. Preachers are notorious for getting tongues tangled — for foot-in-mouth disease. A friend of mine made a huge goof one time that had the congregation so ticked that he good-naturedly just closed the service!

I was once praying a sincere prayer and heard myself devoutly pray: “Oh, Lord, we come to you in true humidity.” Along the Texas Gulf Coast that may be more true than what I intended to say in the first place.

Last Sunday as I preached a sermon on Lot’s wife, I commented that we don’t know the names of all the women in the Bible and we don’t know her’s. Then, somewhere early in her story I said something like, “Lot’s wife husband, Lot, decided to join his uncle in his journey.” Even as I said it I got tickled. Yep, Lot’s wife’s husband was named Lot all right. It took me a minute or so to get my act back together.

Anyway, we don’t know Mrs. Lot’s name…but I’m quite sure that Lot’s wife’s husband was named Lot.

Sometimes, you just have to laugh at yourself, pick up the pieces, and move on the best you can.

Preaching advice for young pastors: Mother’s Day

I know I’m risking becoming the target of mothers everywhere, but I’ve got to say it: pastors shouldn’t preach about mothers on Mother’s Day. Take time early in the service. Give ’em flowers or bookmarks or some other nice gift. Pray a fervent prayer, thanking God for moms and asking his blessings on them.

Then…get on with the service. Don’t sing “My Mother’s Old Bible is True” and “When Mama Prayed Heaven Paid Attention.” Preach whatever you would have preached otherwise. Stick to the schedule…stay in your series, etc. After all, while “honoring mother and father” are certainly Biblical concepts, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day aren’t actually Biblical holidays. Change the schedule for Pentecost and Easter and maybe Ascension Day but stay the course for “Hallmark holidays.”

Moms, we love you and appreciate you, but we hope you’re okay with us not building the entire service around you.

Reflections on 40 years of sermon preparation

It’s funny how decisions made early in one’s career get carried forward for decades. In my early preaching I wanted to “hide” my sermon notes in my Bible (not to be deceptive, just so I could hold my Bible in hand and preach without having to carry a notebook too). I turned the page sideways and typed the sermon outline in two columns, creating a page one and page two. I then folded the page in half and used a rubber band to hold it in my Bible in the same place as my text.

That didn’t work very well because it was hard on the binding of the Bible. Over time, I moved the sermon outline to a notebook that holds the paper with a clip on top. It is the same length and width of the average Bible. I kept the landscape/two column outline approach. Ultimately, I went to a fuller outline and ended up filling front and back of a letter sized sheet of paper, but still using two columns – creating “4” pages of sermon notes.

If you are still with me, looking back, had I not wanted to hide my notes in my Bible I probably wouldn’t have gone with the landscape, two column approach that I’ve now used around 40 years!

I’ll add this: using a manuscript or decent outline is invaluable for revisiting passages. I very seldom just re-preach a sermon, but having exhaustive material from a previous sermon is invaluable to an every Sunday preacher.

Sometimes going back and reviewing old material is quite humbling to me and I’m tempted to write a letter of apology to a previous congregation. At other times, I’m amazed at how the Lord was helping me in those days with insights that are still valuable to me today.

In general, I think I turned a corner around 40 years of age. Work I did after that is generally more to my liking than what I did in my 20s and 30s. Maybe at 45 or so I finally grew up (not kidding here).