Rotating Header Image

can the show pony become a horse whisperer? – jonathan robinson

We’ve just moved to a new church. After 6 years of being the “main preacher” it’s been interesting to enter a church as the new family, and not the new pastor. Firstly, that has meant I can now take my turn in the creche, meaning I hear half as many sermons as are preached. Secondly, that has meant a change of gear. I am no longer responsible for the preaching team and their messages.

Our new church home is interesting in this regard. They have been without a pastor for a number of years and now have a large roster of “lay” preachers who take turns (after 6 weeks we haven’t had a repeat). There seems to be some attempt at planning, but the overriding impression is that each preacher is expected to pray and gain inspiration as to what message to bring. Usually a theme or thought is presented with a number of Bible passages mixed in. Each preacher’s idiosyncrasies and personality can come shining through. There have been some really interesting messages and it is clear those who are preaching take their responsibility seriously and put a lot of effort into bringing someone to edify and bless the congregation. The congregation seems to really appreciate that the preachers are not “professionals” and are encouraging, supportive and, dare I say, tolerant.

Of course, it hasn’t taken long for some people to sniff out that I am a “professional”, a trained and experienced preacher. Some have even told me that I am the answer to their prayers. Clearly not everyone thinks the current situation is ideal. There is something missing, the authoritative voice of God speaking through the scriptures. It is tempting for me to jump into the role of “anointed preacher” and show them how it is done. If I dug out some of my greatest hits from 16 years of preaching I’m sure I could knock their socks off.

But I am reluctant. One of my ministry regrets so far is that I have spent too much time doing, showing how it is done, and not enough time helping, teaching, and encouraging others to do it. (Don’t get me wrong, I have done some.) Because I learned to preach by imitating the preachers around me I’ve always assumed the best way to teach is to do, and do it well. But I’ve had to realise that I am unusual, and most people do not pick things up like that but need it broken down and explained, usually more than twice. So, my forming dream now, for this church, is not for me to be a great preacher, but to work out if and how I can help this church’s preaching team to grow in Biblical preaching.

There comes a point as a preacher when by being the show pony, you are really minimising your impact. If you are the main one who demonstrates and performs the preaching you quickly enter the myth of the “anointed preacher” where only you have the special gift and ability to minister God’s word to people. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying some people aren’t more gifted than others, nor am I saying a church shouldn’t have a main preacher, but isn’t it better to see many people ministering the word well than one who does it spectacularly but then leaves a big hole when they (inevitably) go?

And there’s the rub. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the situation in my new church is rapidly becoming the norm for New Zealand. Professional preachers are getting harder to come by, and anyway churches are finding them harder (read: too expensive) to support. I love the work of Langham Preaching in teaching Biblical preaching in the developing world. But I think increasingly we need something similar here in NZ. Maybe the best way to serve God now is to focus my time on seeing others become Biblical preachers who can faithfully minister in their own churches, or maybe I should just start with this one and see how it goes, not that anyone’s asked me yet. And come to think of it we could do with some better biscuits in creche . . .

how original is your sermon? – jonathan robinson

plagiarism

I remember a comment from years ago by R.T. Kendal (former incumbent at the famous Westminster Chapel, UK) who admitted that he felt tremendous pressure to always have something original to say when preaching. He realised he needed to be careful with this, novelty is not a criteria of orthodoxy, and that preaching the Bible faithfully was more important that impressing his listeners with previously unheard of insights. I have to admit I have the same tendency, I love finding angles and interpretations that people haven’t heard before, my favourite comment from a church member is, “I’ve been hearing the Bible taught for 50 years but you always bring something fresh out for us.”

On the other hand I know of a pastor who supplements his income by writing sermons for other preachers. He finds sermons “easy” to write and doesn’t see any harm in what he does. Personally I could never preach another person’s sermon and I don’t think anyone else could preach from my notes. Sometimes in moments of dire urgency I have been tempted to download something to fill the gap but I have discovered I am pathologically incapable of preaching someone else’s words as my own. Recently Scot McKnight, among others, took exception to the practice of Pastors using ready-made sermons. He admits, though, that sermon content usually draws from many sources:

“To be sure, nearly every sermon emerges from books and sermons and ideas and all sorts of things that were used. But it is bricolage, it is quilting, it is convergence — it is precisely those things and not simple usage of others. It brings together other people’s ideas and says so if it is substantial; but it is a uniquely personal, local, and temporal bringing of those things together. Taking someone’s sermon destroys the bricolage and turns it into a canned, deceitful act of creating a false image in front of God’s people.”

I’m not so sure McKnight is right to be quite so condemnatory. Of course we shouldn’t convey other people’s anecdotes in the first person – that is deceptive. Of course pastors are expected to be spending time in study preparing sermons and if they are not doing that then what are they doing with their time? Of course we should not present other people’s insights and work as if it were our own unique thoughts. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. (Phil 1:18) Is borrowing another person’s sermon, something I have never done, really so bad in itself?

In Preachers and Preaching by Martyn Lloyd-Jones he recounts two stories about Charles Spurgeon, the famous Baptist preacher of 19th C. London. In the first Spurgeon admonishes a student preacher for stealing one of his sermons, on closer investigation it turns out that the plagiarised sermon is by one by William Jay, and that Spurgeon is also guilty of, unintentional, plagiarism. In the second story Spurgeon, under an attack of depression, hears one of his own sermons preached by a lay reader in a small Essex chapel. The preacher is mortified to be found out but Spurgeon replies,

“I don’t care whose sermon it is,” said Mr. Spurgeon, “all I know is that your  preaching this morning has convinced me that I am a child of God, that I am saved by grace, and that my sins are forgiven, that I am called to the ministry; and I am ready to go back to preach again.”

I like McKnight’s idea of a quilt, and this is the sort of preaching I aspire to and would like to receive. But I wonder if the academic paranoia about plagiarism is misplaced. I love Spurgeon’s response to plagiarism. Who cares who wrote it if it brings God’s grace and truth to the hearer?

What do you think?

 

should we be using greek and hebrew in our sermons? – jonathan robinson

opened old book with flying greek letters on black and white background

Teacher of preaching Paul Windsor, founder of this blog, is remembered by many of his students as opining, “Your knowledge of Hebrew and Greek should be like your underwear, important for support but shouldn’t be shown off in public!” It is a pithy adage and I think an important warning to two types of preachers,

  1. Those with impressive knowledge of the original languages of scripture who might be tempted to display this knowledge without any benefit to the sermon.
  1. Those whose poor knowledge of Greek and Hebrew are tempted to sound impressive by using Strong’s, or E-sword, or some such, and make idiots of themselves.

Exegeting the passage in the original languages is very important for both nuance and accuracy and the original languages can often suggest illustrations or images which are less explicit in the English text but can powerfully communicate the message. Often there is no need to “show your working” when you are preaching and doing so is either in the realm of showing off or of revealing your ineptitude.

However, I am not wholly happy with the underwear analogy (and no doubt, like all analogies and underpants, it was only intended to stretch so far!). From time to time I think there is a point where it becomes appropriate to explain the original language of a text in order to persuade the congregation of the interpretation of the passage that you are preaching, or even of why another interpretation might be wrong. Often the understanding of a word or idiom in the original language provides an interpretive crux without which your explanation of the passages meaning is incomplete.

Not only this but no translation is perfect, while the scholars who produced them are usually of the highest caliber the editorial process and pressure from publishers not to stray too far from tradition mean that there will always be translation decisions that a preacher will want to push back on or at the very least nuance (a classic example might be 2 Peter 3:10).

Many English speakers who have grown up with the Bible often have a sense of over familiarity and it good for them to be reminded that this is not a text that arrived from Heaven in English but that they read it through a good but fallible translation. I think N.T. Wright’s famous complaint that “reading the New Testament in  English is like drinking wine through a tea bag” unhelpfully undermines people’s confidence in their ability to read scripture for themselves, but without going as far we can certainly encourage some (often much needed) humility. At the same time in most of our congregations now there are many languages present, it is important that the Bible is not understood to be an English document or that its interpretation is only for those with excellent English. I can’t think of a better way than referring, occasionally and judiciously, to the original languages.

Finally, as preachers we find great joy and insight from knowing the original languages, even if we are not yet experts on them. Why would we deprive the congregation of that. Are they not smart enough to understand?

What do you think? What are your experiences of giving or receiving sermons that refer to Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic?

 

is it wrong to preach on tithing? – jonathan robinson

tithing_jesuspaiditall

In my experience and discussion with other pastors in Auckland there are two types of churches in the city, those who treat tithing in a legalistic or pagan (read, prosperity gospel) way and those who avoid the subject for fear of being associated with the first kind. Especially among some ethnic minority churches, but also some neo-Pentecostal ones, tithing is taught and enforced in a spiritually abusive and destructive manner. I understand and sympathise with the position of the latter group but feel that they may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. If we choose not to mention tithing, and often that means we don’t talk about money at all, a helpful and life giving spiritual discipline is sidelined and people are deprived of part of the Biblical teaching on wealth. (Yes, I am aware the Biblical teaching on money goes way beyond tithing!)

I have tried to carve a third way. Firstly, I am emphatic (perhaps overly so) about the fact that the Old Testament (OT) tithes do not apply as law to New Testament (NT) Christians and that living in such an unequal society means we cannot expect everyone to give the same. Secondly, I try to highlight the principles behind the OT tithes and relate them to NT theology, and the ways in which they can help our relationship with God (and our relationship with money, etc) today. Tithes may not apply as law but they may have much to teach us about being God’s people.

I’ve preached two sermons on the subject so far. The first was on Abraham’s tithe to Melchizedek (Gen 14:17-20), the second was on the three different tithes in the Mosaic Law (Lev 27:30, Num 18:21, Deut 14:22ff). Based on limited feedback and the unscientific “preacher’s sense” both messages were well received by the congregation and people appreciated exploring some unfamiliar passages of scripture.

I think if we are going to preach on tithing it is important for such sermons to be expositional because that helps keep the legal practice of tithing located in the particular historical and covenantal epoch to which it relates. It is also important to frame our response (application) to those OT passages from a NT perspective. Any sermon on giving easily turns to the gospel, because of God’s great gift to us in Jesus Christ.

As a pastor I am often very aware of the church’s need to make budget and of the detrimental effect of poor cash flow on the church’s ministries. However, by preaching expositionally I avoid the temptation to make the sermon about the church’s budget (not a Biblical concept) and have to focus instead on themes like holiness, trust in God and worship, etc. This makes for sermons which direct people to examine their hearts towards God rather than their support of the church. Of course the two things are not unrelated but it is important not to have the tail wag the dog or we could end up with a church rich in money but poor towards God! (cf. Luke 12:21)

I’m not sure about preaching on Malachi 3:6-12 though. In many ways this is the source text for most abusive and false teaching on tithing. People are so used to it being used in a certain way, even reading it aloud could be hurtful and unhelpful for many. But then again, avoiding it probably isn’t the answer either, isn’t it better to confront those wrong interpretations and educate the congregation against the false teaching?

What do you think? Do you or would you preach on tithing? Or is it just too tainted by the abuses of others?

 

plan to be spontaneous? – jonathan robinson

b196eaea91eb1c711156bc941785fb86

I have always had a preaching plan. In theory I have also always had the flexibility to be flexible about the plan if something comes up or the Lord leads me differently. I plan the next year’s preaching calendar in October/November. This means I know the congregation are getting a balanced diet of scripture from different testaments and genres. But it also makes me reluctant to mess with the plan. After all, if I cut in on that series on Philippians to do a special message I then either mess up that series or have to impose on another series to make up the time. Compounding the issue is working with a preaching team, as they need to be given their instructions in plenty of time. Last minute changes to the plan don’t go down well. (In this respect sole pastors have an easier life!)

Probably once or twice a year I will scrap the plan, either to preach on something that is pastorally necessary, e.g. responding to a tragic story in our community, or to share something that God has particularly burdened my heart with. Without fail those messages seem to impact the church the most, they seem to especially love the narrative: “I was planning to preach on X, but I feel I must preach on Y.” (I have to be careful not to overuse it.)

What I’m wondering is if I should actually plan in some spontaneity? I would be exhausted (and the congregation bored) if I had to pull a sermon out of nowhere every time I preached, but on the other hand planning the whole year seems to leave me overly restricted. So for 2015 I am planning more space for one off “unplanned” sermons. The bulk of the teaching will still be planned. We will still spend time in the law, the prophets, the gospels, the epistles, but I also want to – every now and then – be forced to pray: “God what am I going to preach on this week?” Not because the Holy Spirit doesn’t work in advance, my testimony from years of planning a whole year at a time is that the Holy Spirit seems to spectacularly arrange for the right message at the right time; but because it helps to keep me fresh and the congregation on their toes.

What do you think? Should we plan to be spontaneous?

 

preaching and leadership, leadership and preaching – jonathan robinson

84_Obrien.qxd

I must confess I am rather new to conversations about “leadership”. However, as my own ministry has demanded more leadership from me in recent years I have been forced to reckon with the topic more. The following observations are offered from the humble vantage of a leadership rookie. They may appear rather sophomoric for the more seasoned leaders reading. I’d love to get your additions or criticisms.

Preaching and Leadership

  1. Preaching is the most visible part of your ministry. If you do it consistently well, then the church’s principle impression is of you doing something well and they will be more confident and receptive to your leading in other areas. However, good preachers need to be careful not to transfer authority from something they are expert in (e.g. the Bible) to something they are not (e.g. finances). Conversely, if you are sometimes seen to be struggling, incoherent or out of your depth confidence in you will be diminished. As pastoral leaders preaching is the principle expertise that gives us credibility before the church we lead.
  2. Preaching allows you to affect the character and disposition of the church by regularly presenting a calm and faithful presence. When we respond to crises in the church and local and global situations with a God centred biblical perspective we can help to reduce the anxiety and increase the faith of the congregation.
  3. Preaching allows you to show that where you are leading the church is not your own personal agenda but is in line with God’s word. Of course this is a danger area, we all know the scriptures can be manipulated, but that is not a reason not to do it, that is a reason to do it more diligently and ensure we are faithfully handling the word of God.
  4. The key to all the above is surely good exegesis. It is the only way we can be sure of knowing what we are talking about when we preaching, of reassuring the church of God’s faithfulness in troubled times, and the only way to protect against our own (well intended but false) agendas.

Leadership and Preaching

  1. If you preach well but never put it into action then the congregation will likely imitate that in their own lives. As you demonstrate leadership that is not satisfied with the status quo but demands change to conform to the will of God you create a culture in the church whereby we realise the word of God needs to change our lives.
  2. It is not enough to tell people how they ought to live or what they ought to do. For them to put it into practice the leader must shape a community that will create opportunities and pathways for them to do so.
  3. Just as the public nature of preaching means it can add or diminish credibility depending on how it is done, so does your leadership affect the reception of your preaching. Once when I had failed to adequately respond personally to someone who I knew was struggling with the direction of the church I then had the unpleasant experience of them erroneously taking something from a sermon as a personal attack and going on the warpath. They had missed the message of what was supposed to be an encouraging and uplifting sermon and instead our relationship was further damaged.
  4. The church doesn’t just listen to the preacher’s words but looks at her or his life to judge the message they hear. If our leadership is not gospel integrated, grace filled, and an illustration and outworking of the message we preach then the impact of our preaching will be lessened by our hypocrisy.

I am not suggesting that you cannot preach without being a leader, or that you cannot be a leader without preaching. However, in a church setting the two usually go hand in hand and I would argue that both have the potential to enforce or undermine the effectiveness of the other. Let me know what you think.

apologetic preaching – jonathan robinson

apologetics

In the preacher’s task of equipping the church and helping it grow towards maturity in Christ one of the things we must not neglect is the work of apology – defending the faith. Two scriptures clearly instruct the church to be prepared to respond to any question or opportunity to share the gospel with unbelievers (1 Pet 3:13, Col 4:2-6). What are the topics that are most likely to come up for our people in their everyday conversations? For an initial incomplete list I would suggest,

Creation

Reliability of the Bible

Christian hypocrisy

Church History

The Resurrection

The divinity of Christ

Truth vs pluralism

Sexual morality (esp. homosexuality)

Church divisions

The Trinity (especially if you know any Muslims)

I do not think the apologetic task should be limited to those occasions when we know we are speaking to those who don’t yet believe. These topics should appear regularly in our preaching to the church. As I wrote that list I realised I have done a better job in some areas than others. I don’t think it is necessary to have dedicated sermons or a series on these topics, although it could be helpful. However, if these issues don’t get mentioned and explained from time to time in your preaching how is the congregation supposed to know how to respond when these issue come up in their everyday life?

John Dickson, in his excellent book The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission, points out that the emphasis in these scriptures is not on what the believer’s say (although that is important) but on how they say it. He writes, “Church preachers have a special role here. They set the model for the congregation in a way that occasional courses cannot. Sometimes I hear preachers (in the safe environment of church) thundering against this or that moral departure in society or some outrageous argument from Richard Dawkins & Co., and I worry that the average Christian in the pew might try to take this mode of speech into their world. This is potentially disastrous. Just as bad, other believers know full well that such an approach will never work in their work, family or university environment and so they just keep quiet, unsure of the best way to speak up for Christ. But if congregations consistently hear in the weekly exposition a thoughtful, gracious engagement with the moral and intellectual viewpoints of society, they will be receiving the best kind of training possible for their daily conversations about Christianity. Preachers: please arm your people not just with what to say but how to say it.” (p186, 2010, emphasis original)

We preachers actually have it easy, we get to say this stuff to an audience that wants to hear it and it (by and large) is likely to agree with what we say. The temptation to sound off and lambast an absent critic of Christianity is a very real one. It makes us look good and feel good. Dickson is surely right that this needs to be avoided as a bad example of what defending the faith should look like. After all if we cannot present a reasoned, clear, gracious, gentle and respectful defence of the faith (1 Pet 3:13, Col 4:2-6) when preaching to the converted how can we expect the church to do so when they share their faith with an unbelieving world?

Let me know what you think.

are we training our preachers all wrong? – jonathan robinson

adultClassroom_6

I have a question about the way we train preachers. I’m not just talking about the individual courses and seminars designated for preachers but about the whole system of Bible college or seminary. Think for a minute about a really good sermon you just preached – the likelihood is that in preparation and delivery you completed more than a few of the following tasks:

Exegesis of scripture

Theological interpretation of scripture

Poetic prose writing

Story telling

Illustrative parable construction

Contemplative listening prayer

Public prayer

Making an argument

Telling a joke

Delivery of a prepared speech

Extemporizing on a theme

Create dramatic contrast in tone and pitch of voice

Connect with a congregation/audience

Appeal winsomely for a response to the Word

Contemporising and colloquialising complex theological concepts

Creating helpful visual aids

Inspire people

Research

Etc.

I’m sure you could add to that list. Now here is the question. How well does writing academic essays prepare a preacher for those tasks? And how significant to the task of preaching are those tasks which we especially focus upon in college? And even those tasks we do focus on academically, e.g. exegesis, how well does the way we do it in college prepare us for real preaching ministry, e.g. taking 2 weeks to write an exegetical essay versus having one morning (if you are lucky/disciplined) to do your biblical work? To me, while Bible and theology are essential and vital for preaching (or else what would we be preaching?!) writing academic essays about Bible and theology does not equip people to preach well because the gulf between what your lecturer wants to read and what a congregation need to hear is too vast. Not only that but the amount of time a student spends preparing essays compared to practicing preaching is so disproportionate that only among the unusually gifted does the essay writing not hinder and undermine the preaching. Perhaps those who succeed despite the system mask the ineffectiveness of the system for others. I have often heard the remark that it takes preachers a couple of years to “get over their education”. So should we rethink pastoral training to be more focused on the tasks we actually perform and the way we really perform them?

why I don’t do (much) application – jonathan robinson

life

The post is a response to Steve Worsley’s post last month. Steve’s post made me feel a bit defensive (I don’t know Steve personally so assume he wasn’t aiming it at me) but I am very lazy when it comes to application and so I thought I would take Steve’s provocation to explain why. I deliberately take a polemical tone to encourage debate, not because I believe Steve to be guilty of the extremes I warn against.

1. Everyone benefits from getting to know the bible better; application can seldom be universal – meaning more weight on exegesis benefits more of the congregation.

2. Application that is too direct can create defensiveness and resistance to the message, however get people to accept the principle and then when the penny drops and the spirit convicts it has more force to change their actions as well.

3. The sermon is not for telling people what to do but to lead them into a new way of thinking in the possibilities of the new creation. Transformation of the mind is the goal not information. We are shepherds who lead people to the green pastures of biblical imagination not dictators who control every step. Over-emphasis on application creates a sense of legalism – doing what the preacher says, rather than transformation as the mind is renewed by the Spirit.

4. The more time spent on application (i.e. considering how individuals in the congregation ought to respond to the sermon) means people are more likely to feel got at. I think it is important to avoid using the privileged knowledge of a pastor to preach into situations you know are happening in the church. If you’ve got something to say to someone you need to say it to their face not in front of x number of people. That way the sermon is for God to speak, not for the pastor.

5. Leaving work for the listener encourages engagement with the message and principles; spoon feeding them makes them rely on your insight into their lives to make application. You will not intend it but they will take it as exhaustive. Leaving it open ended allows for application far beyond the preacher’s limited insight and imagination. At a previous church we would leave application for the weekly small groups, so the preacher could lay out the Bible passage and its message but leave it to the small groups to discuss what that should look like in their own lives – I think that is a good way to do it in theory at least.

 

Example 1 In Steve’s account in his post he (internally) screamed at the preacher for not applying the sermon to his own life, but surely the good teacher is interested in getting the learners to work things out for themselves. Steve is still thinking about how to apply the sermon now, but with a selection of answers provided at the end he may well have been happy to close the book on that sermon and not think of it again. I’d say the sermon was a success.

Example 2 Recently while I was preaching on the Ten Lepers (Luke 17) I made reference to the prejudices that can blind us to what God is doing (e.g. with a Samaritan). I know that some in the church hold strong prejudice against, for example, homosexuals, the Roman Catholic Church and political Maori. If I named those groups in application I would have been mistaken for advocating for those groups and immediately had my point rejected. By allowing them to accept the point in abstract without attacking their personal views they may come to their own conclusions which will be far more powerful than having my conclusions thrust upon them.

Sometimes the text has to be applied specifically and directly and I am not an absolutist by any stretch. I also have to admit that people do appreciate direct and forceful application when I do it and I do get criticised from time to time for not doing enough of it. But you’ve heard my reasoning for doing it not much, what do you think?

jonathan robinson – preaching under fire

I am a cynic.  I am naturally prone to doubt everything, not because I have an especially strong bent to rationalism but because I don’t trust other people to be rational, or even myself for that matter.  For example as a young associate pastor in London I remember a visiting team of young missionaries getting very excited about the spiritual attack that they were under whilst camping in our church.  As they recounted to me the battle they were fighting I sat there thinking what a load of rubbish they were talking, they just needed to go outside and get some fresh air and sunshine instead of stewing in an admittedly dark and stuffy church basement.

However, since I started sharing my life with my better half, and life with my better half accounts for about half my years of preaching at present, we have begun to notice that before I preach an especially good sermon (especially good by my standards anyway) we generally have a pretty rough time of it, sleepless nights, bad dreams, children refusing to settle, neighbours or their cats causing trouble, etc.  I would be tempted to blame this on nervous tension but I usually have no idea which sermons are going to go well or not and the ones that really go with a bang usually take me by as much surprise as they do the congregation.

I’d hate to be thought of as superstitious, but is it possible that I am resistant to the idea of my preaching placing me in the line of fire, making me liable to spiritual attack, because I haven’t actually grasped the spiritual significance of what I am doing?  If I am truly sowing the word of God in people’s hearts surely I am bound to suffer from flocks of pesky birds?  If I am seeking to advance God’s kingdom surely the kingdom that is losing ground will resist?  If I hold up the shield of faith doesn’t its very presence suggest the reality and danger of flaming arrows?

My question is, because I am a pretty secularised cynical fella who hasn’t given this a great deal of thought, how do you think about and deal with the spiritual battle aspect of your preaching ministry?  Is it enough just to turn our eyes upon Jesus, or do we need one eye out for prowling devouring lions?  What do you think?  What do you do?

* * *

Jonathan Robinson is a lanky bearded Brit who has been preaching since 1999, in NZ since 2006, and blogging since 2008.  He is one of the pastors at Blockhouse Bay Baptist Church and blogs at http://Xenos-Theology.blogspot.com.