New Blog Location

New Pastor's Blog

Insight for Living Ministries’ pastor’s blog has a new address and a new look! Please change any bookmarks you may have to our new location: http://pastors.iflblog.com.

This archived blog and its pages/urls will be phased out soon.

Good Communication—Apply the Text

If I have one strength in my teaching it would have to be the application of Scripture. For the life of me, I don’t know why that’s true. It might just be a habit of my life that I can’t let the text rest until it’s been applied. But I appreciate others telling me that it’s one of my strengths. I think it can be yours, too. 

For this blog entry on application, I want to get very practical. Let me share with you in three short lists what I have found to be helpful in the process of drawing application from the Bible.

Let’s start with the negative, and let’s make it personal. What if I fail to apply the Scriptures? 

1. The truth will not invade areas of my life that need attention.
2. I will substitute an emotional experience for a willful decision. Haven’t you had that happen? A few tears, but the truth is soon forgotten. 
3. I will rationalize according to the areas of my prejudice or preference.

Remember James’s illustration of the mirror in James 1:22–25? Application is the essential response to hearing the Word. Here are some steps I walk through to help facilitate that in my preaching. 

1. I write down general principles that relate to me and to others. These are timeless truths that come straight from the passage I’m preaching.
2. I search for specific areas of weakness. I think of life in categories: my world at the church, in social settings, with children, with a mate, with older people, my emotional life, my intellectual life, my leisure, and my pressures—you get the idea. I run the principles through those categories. Then I think about how this specifically applies to an area of life that needs attention. 
3. I also look for specific areas of affirmation. I try to think about how the principles can encourage others. I picture people in all walks of life: the single, the married, the divorced, the broken, the troubled, the sick, the recovering, the happy, the fulfilled, the successful, the older, the younger, the teenager—and on and on. I apply my principles as if I’m standing in their shoes.
4. I spell out specific methods of correction.    

Finally, let me suggest three rules that I find extremely helpful when crafting a point of application. 

1. It needs to be brief enough to be remembered. 
2. It needs to be clear enough to be written down.
3. It needs to be realistic enough to be achieved. 

If you’ll run your applications through the grid of these rules, I think you’ll find that it helps the truth stick. It’s not a formula that replaces prayer. It’s simply a tool that makes us better at our craft. I have employed it for years and have seen that God has blessed it—and used it to change lives. And that’s our goal in preaching, isn’t it?

                             —Chuck

Good Communication—Tell Me a Story

I am a glutton for illustrations. I have boxes of illustrations that I save and keep on file (and occasionally, lose). They are priceless to my preaching.

A good illustration is worth every minute it takes from your sermon. I didn’t always think so. I used to think an illustration was a waste of time. I no longer believe that. The men and women who have deeply ministered to me are people who have been able to take a story and help me see its relevance in light of biblical truth. 

Through all the years and in all the places I have been engaged in ministry, I have learned the value of good illustrations. Interesting illustrations. Illustrations that grab the attention and clear the minds of the listeners. Illustrations that open the windows and have surprise elements, bringing light to truth. More times than I can count, I remember watching God pry open the eyes and unstop the ears (not to mention soften the hearts) of others, many of whom were bound and determined not to give me the time of day . . . until they were stabbed awake and compelled to listen. A well-chosen illustration can transform a hostile skeptic into an interested participant. I know; I’ve seen it happen. 

Be a good storyteller—even if the story is only three sentences. Pay attention to the way you turn a phrase. Pay attention to details. You don’t need a lot of words, but you do need some color to make the stories stick. Show emotion. Gesture. Raise and lower your voice. You can even whisper. When you teach the Scriptures and apply them, people may forget your insightful observations of the text—but believe me, they won’t forget meaningful and creative illustrations.

Every good novelist knows the axiom: “Show, don’t tell.” That works in preaching as well. Even Jesus, the Master-Preacher, told stories to illustrate biblical truth. How could we not do the same? 

                        —Chuck

Good Communication—Keep it Simple

If I make one mistake more often than any other as a preacher, it is assuming more than I should about my congregation. I assume people want to know what the Bible says. I assume they know I have their best interest at heart. I assume they understand the context. I assume they have a theological frame of reference. And having begun on those shaky assumptions, I begin building a great big sermon when the foundation has not been laid.  I’ve discovered it’s better to keep the message simple (but not simplistic), to take it a little slower and to establish a good, firm foundation. Then I can build my case.

I’ll never forget when I was asked to speak to an audience who didn’t have a lot of biblical knowledge. I decided to start simple. “I will be referring to passages in the Bible according to numbers,” I told them. “For example: ‘John 3:16.’ Now, the ‘3’ stands for the chapter, and the ‘16’ stands for the verse.” And Cynthia was sitting on the front row rolling her eyes like, “Oh, man, they’re going to think Chuck fell off a turnip truck!”

But would you believe it? I had a guy come up to me afterwards and say, “All my life I’ve been wondering what those numbers are, and what that colon in the middle was for. Now I know! That’s a chapter! And that’s a verse!” No kidding. Most people will never see the inside of a seminary. (That’s why they have hope!) They don’t know a lot of the things we think they know. And unless we keep it simple, we lose them . . . and they never will.

I received an e-mail not long ago from a friend whose teenage daughter had taken notes during my sermon and then had written my application points on her bathroom mirror. (My friend sent me the picture.)

4 timeless principles

I’ve said for many years that if I can communicate in a way that teenagers get it, write it down, remember it, and then apply it—I will have accomplished something very gratifying.

Keep your stuff simple. The goal is to communicate, remember—not to impress.

                          —Chuck

Good Communication—Be Interesting

Some of us who are evangelicals seem to think that because we’re teaching the Bible we can bore people with it. And that there’s something wrong with the audience if they go to sleep on us. I know a great Hebrew term for that line of thinking: Hogwash!

A good communicator is interesting. Look at how Solomon put it: “The Preacher sought to find delightful words and to write words of truth correctly” (Ecclesiastes 12:10). Did you notice, “delightful words”? The preacher sought to find that which would bring emotional delight. How about that! I take that to mean he’s looking for clarity as well as an interesting, even captivating use of terms.

I heard a true story that theologian Carl F. H. Henry told as he spoke to a group of radio broadcasters. The late Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr decided to write out his theological position, stating exactly where he stood philosophically. Being a profound thinker (and a bit verbose), it took him many sheets of paper to express himself. Upon completion of his masterwork, he realized it needed to be evaluated by a mind much more practical than his own. He sent the material to a minister whom he knew had a practical mind and a pastoral heart. With great pains the clergyman slogged through the ream of paper, trying desperately to grasp the meaning. When he finally finished, he worked up the nerve to write a brief, yet absolutely candid, note in reply. It read:

My dear Dr. Niebuhr:
I understand every word you have written, but I do not understand one sentence.

Please
. . . stop and think about the words you’re using. As well as the sentences you’re stringing together. Go to war against clichés and “Christian-ese” bromides no one understands—or cares to. If you don’t, you’re boring! And so am I.

When people listen to us, they should want to embrace the truth we’re teaching. If they reject it, however, it should not be because of our delivery. Being an interesting and clear communicator means you have thought through a passage, and you are serving the meal so that anybody can understand it. That includes the raw pagan who just walked in and sits in the back.

If you’re talking code language, you’re talking to yourself and the three seminary graduates that are in your congregation. You’re boring. Don’t go there.

                             —Chuck

Good Communication—Be Well-Prepared

If sweat were blood, my study would be red. So would yours. As pastors, part of what helps us become good communicators is paying the personal price for being well-prepared. That takes hard work.

“The Preacher,” Solomon tells us, “also taught the people knowledge”—and this occurred by “pondering, searching out, and arranging” his thoughts (Ecclesiastes 12:9). These verbs are in the intensive stem in the Hebrew. In other words, in becoming well-prepared, you have to sacrifice. The cost is high! Both in time . . . and in tools.

Buy books that help you understand the Word of God. Some of my best books are what I call my “blood” books. When I was in seminary, I used to donate a pint of blood and in return receive twenty bucks. I bought the Old Testament series by Kyle and Delitzsch with blood money. I bought Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament with blood money. They were supposed to take my blood only every six weeks, but I’d occasionally go in after five weeks. One time I pushed it to four weeks! Cynthia told me, “I think you’re kind of pressing it on this thing with your library.” And she was right. But hey, where else can you have 100 scholars at your fingertips when you’re stuck away in Fargo . . . or Frisco! Get and use good tools.

You’ll have to deal severely with the temptation to dance around a passage rather than to dig in deeply—especially when time is of the essence. So start early. We both know that Saturday night panic doesn’t yield quality stuff on Sunday. “A mist in the pulpit puts a fog in the pew” is another way of saying it!    

I would encourage you to write down more of your ideas. Don’t rely on your memory. Write down those fleeting thoughts that come to you in the middle of the night. Many times I have gotten up to write something I didn’t want to lose. Those times that I didn’t do that, almost without exception, I forgot them by the next morning. I must go through half a yellow tablet of paper per sermon writing things down. I have discovered that it is in the writing of my thoughts that my ideas take shape and narrow into understandable terms. It is in the “pondering, searching out, and arranging” of thoughts that the preacher is well-prepared.

Oh, and please . . . don’t feel bad about taking your notes and outline into the pulpit! (They never told you that at seminary, did they?  Me either.) What could be more frustrating than being well-prepared to communicate only to forget half of it after the choir sings? The best expositors I’ve heard use notes.

Changing lives is God’s job. We rely on Him for that—unquestionably. But being well-prepared . . . that’s our responsibility.

                              

—Chuck

Good Communication—The First Step

I don’t mind being called a preacher. One of my lifetime goals has been to be a good preacher. That takes hard work. You know that. Good communication is never automatic. Sometimes you may think you’re coming through clearly only to be surprised when a member of the congregation, or even your wife, without your asking, shares with you that your message didn’t come through. We’ve all been there!

I want to write in the next few posts about helping your message come through.

The greatest privilege in the world is to have people listen when we speak. But I never assume that the congregation comes to listen—to really listen. Rather, I usually assume they approach my message with a ho-hum spirit. Therefore, I have to earn the right to be heard every Lord’s day. We owe it to our congregations to prepare and then present good meals. I think that’s what Solomon had in mind when he wrote about the Preacher:

In addition to being a wise man, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge; and he pondered, searched out and arranged many proverbs. (Ecclesiastes 12:9)

Did you notice where preaching should begin? With being . . . before doing. Before you teach the people you are to be a wise man. Remember how Jesus chose twelve men, “that they would be with Him and that He could send them out to preach” (Mark 3:14). Notice the order? First they were with Jesus . . . then they preached.

The hard work of good preaching begins with the fear of the Lord—true wisdom. Don’t assume its presence. As you work hard to cultivate a genuine, growing relationship with God, wisdom will come.

Don’t take any shortcuts with that first step.

                —Chuck

Pastoral Traps: Greed

Pastors can easily fall into the trap of money-grubbing. Or in simpler terms, we can be greedy.

This is true if money winds up in the pastor’s pocket that was earmarked for some other realm of ministry. This is true if the minister is asked about his financial policy with regard to ministry money, and he responds with a “that’s-none-of-your-business” type of reaction. Dependable shepherds are not motivated by what Peter referred to as “sordid gain” (1 Peter 5:2). The old King James Version bluntly calls it “filthy lucre.” That’s an archaic expression, but it says it straight. “Not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind.”

My counsel to all in ministry is to keep your hands out of the money. Period. Don’t take cash from people. Don’t give change. Don’t take up the offerings. Don’t count the offering . . . or even concern yourself with where the money is counted. And by all means, don’t try to find out who gives the most! If you do, it will affect the way you preach. On the other hand, if you don’t know what passage of Scripture will offend the largest donors, then you’re free to preach the truth to everyone!

We pastors have to watch out for doing ministry just for the money. Or officiating at a wedding, for example, because there’s money in it. Or doing a funeral because you’ll get a hundred bucks. Greed has no shame. It will wink at you and tempt you, especially in a day when many pastors are underpaid relative to their education.

What I’m saying has nothing to do with “muzzling the ox.” My warning is simple: If you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself justifying greed.

Please . . . don’t go there.

                    —Chuck

Pastoral Traps: Exclusivism

A major trap pastors can fall into is exclusivism. That’s the attitude that says, “I alone am right.” It’s the “us-four-and-no-more-and-I’m-not-sure-about-you-three” kind of attitude. An exclusive spirit occurs when a pastor allows (or even promotes) a clannish, cultic kind of following around him.

Paranoia often accompanies an exclusive spirit: “Other ministries don’t do it as well as I do”—or some similar statement. Watch out for that kind of attitude. Guard yourself from too many first-person pronouns. It is nothing more than pride.

One time John told Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to prevent him because he was not following us” (Mark 9:38). Jesus’s rebuke revealed that we don’t have to be one of the twelve to minister to people. And others don’t have to be one of us either.

We have no corner on the best way to serve Christ. We need to display an absence of competition and an absence of jealousy . . . while cultivating genuine humility. Pray that your attitude and words—and those of your church’s staff—will not become exclusive.

                    —Chuck

Pastoral Traps: Authoritarianism

Not long ago I put together a short list of some of the unique battles that accompany the role of the pastor. I’d like to share them with you over the next few blog entries. While the battles we pastors face are many, I want you to consider five in particular . . . not necessarily in the order of their importance.

The first is the problem of authoritarianism. It’s easy for the pastor to become authoritarian. What does that look like? If the minister needlessly represses the freedom of God’s people, if he becomes inflexible and dictatorial, tyrannical and oppressive, if he bullies people with threats, if he lacks a servant’s heart, if he himself is not teachable, if his arrogance has replaced humility, then he has become an authoritarian. He needs reproof . . . even if he is the pastor.

Tell just a few who are close to you, perhaps a trusted colleague—even your wife, if you have the courage!—to let you know if you start to drift into authoritarianism. It’s not the same as leadership. It is leadership gone wild. Put bluntly, it is sin.

Remember Jesus’s words to His twelve men when they were haggling over who should be first in importance: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served . . .” (Mark 10:45).

You remember the rest.

                    —Chuck

Pastoral Traps: Rationalization and Unaccountability

I know a minister who began to live a lifestyle of sensuality. He got around it by preaching the doctrine of “privacy.” I’ve never seen anything near the doctrine of privacy in Scripture, but he found it. (I should say he forced it!) And it became one of his major messages.

When black-and-white facts are whitewashed, when wrong is justified with a defensive spirit, when inappropriate actions are quickly glossed over and/or denied—watch out. Something’s wrong. Rationalization is occurring.

As pastors, we have to be careful that we don’t exchange our role of teaching what the Word means with a dogmatic deciding what it means. Scriptural truth must never be altered to fit the pastor’s lifestyle; it’s the other way around.

We are to be accountable—not isolated islands of independence. Sustaining unaccountability in a pastor’s life is like moral quicksand. Beware of becoming a secretive and untouchable man. And by all means, don’t rationalize your way around it by claiming, “I am God’s anointed.” Please . . . don’t go there. Don’t even think it! You are the Lord’s servant. So am I.

No matter how eloquent or how competent we become, none of us is above accountability. It’s good for us. We need it. Otherwise, rationalization may worm its way into our pulpits . . . or, worse, into our hearts.

                    —Chuck