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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?

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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.

jonathan robinson: educational preaching?

I saw an interesting video the other day. Brian McLaren was discussing the life cycle of the modern congregation.  He suggested that pastors have usually operated on the principle that people will be at church their whole lives, and so they have plenty of time to teach the Christian faith.  While I’m not so sure about that, pastors certainly used to be able to rely on people having been through Sunday school (and a fairly standardised Sunday school curriculum) and some sort of membership catechesis.  Today, any given congregation will likely contain a great variety of experiences of church education, many not having had any systematic teaching on Christianity further than the Alpha course.   Brian’s suggestion is that, with the transience of today’s society, pastors should think of a congregational life cycle of four years, that every four years they should try and teach everything that they want their congregation to know about the Christian faith.

A few years ago I would have scoffed at such a suggestion, but seeing the way my church (the church I was going to last year) responded to the E100 Bible reading scheme was a revelation to me.  I was not so much surprised by how much people got out of the reading schedule and the discussion groups, how could that not be beneficial?   What I was surprised about was the way the sermons, which had decidedly got worse as they were often trying to cover the whole week’s readings, were actually appreciated and engaged with a whole lot more.  What I concluded was that people were engaging so much more with the sermons, not because the sermons were any better, but because their study in the week before and their aspiration to complete the program meant they approached the sermon significantly more motivated to learn.  I had always assumed the more like school you made church the more people would be put off.  It turns out that the reverse is true.

What I think is at the root of this is that for many the weekly sermon has become a little pointless.  With the intense focus on application and relevance we can make many sermons less relevant because not everyone can have a life changing challenge to respond to every week, you’d be exhausted within a month!  I have actually had correspondence with a church member on just this point.  He felt that the sermon was a kind of scattergun approach which might be God’s word to someone every week, but couldn’t be God’s word to everyone every week.  However, once you clearly place the sermon in a curriculum, with an endpoint and goals and resources for additional study, suddenly, even without a specific personal challenge that week, the sermon has more perceived relevance to the individual.

So perhaps Brian’s idea is worth thinking about?  I have a couple more thoughts about preaching as education and it comes from my recent experience as both a peripatetic music teacher and being briefly on faculty at Carey Baptist College.  First, in both arenas I found it pointless telling people what to do or explaining new concepts, if they did not then have opportunities to put those things into practice and normally they needed to practise them more than once.  Is there a place for preaching to go beyond talking about it to actually getting people doing it?  Second, as a teacher you can see if you are doing your job properly because grades are achieved and the things you have taught are performed by the students.   I wonder if putting a curriculum together, including learning outcomes, might keep us preachers more honest about how much difference our preaching is really making to the lives of those who hear it?

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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.

jonathan robinson: doubtful preaching

I don’t know about you, but I regularly lose my faith.  At least once or twice a year, sometimes more, doubts gather in my mind and heart, grow and nearly overwhelm me.  In those times I have learned to keep moving, to keep behaving as if I still believed.  This isn’t me being fake.  I long since worked out that my believing in God has very little to do with whether he actually exists or not.  Continuing to try to be faithful even when faith is gone is really the only practical thing to do.  Even when my faith is weak or lost, God’s faithfulness can be relied on, and, sooner or later, God always comes through, gives me a fresh glimpse of his grace or reminds me of an old truth, and “faith” returns.  Each time my faith comes back to me it is a little different, a little more complicated, a little less self-confident, but perhaps a little deeper and more real. (more…)

jonathan robinson: don’t take the sting out of the tail

Nearly two years ago I was reading a book by John Wright, Telling God’s Story. One of the book’s valuable observations is that as preachers we tend towards comic rather than tragic sermons.  This has nothing to do with being funny or not, but is rather the tendency to resolve our sermons on good notes rather than leaving the listeners hanging and feeling bad.  So, for example, we might preach on the story of the rich young ruler, but we will make sure by the end of it the congregation doesn’t feel the need to sell everything they possess.  For Wright this has the effect of letting the listeners off the hook. Scripture confronts them with a harsh challenge but the preacher does his or her best to soften the blow so that the congregation can end the sermon feeling good, rather than convicted.  The comic sermon has a happy ending, and so it seldom provokes a response.  The tragic sermon leaves the listener unsettled and thus provokes transformation (in theory at least). (more…)