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the challenging art of artful Challenge – nigel irwin

They say there are two kinds of preaching… comforting the afflicted, and afflicting the comfortable. Most preachers will admit that they tend to specialise in one or the other. I like to afflict the comfortable. If I didn’t discipline myself otherwise, I would probably preach this way 90% of the time. I seem to have a nose for the disruptive angle in any given text – even the most comforting. I once heard someone say that you can only keep your people on the edge of their seats so long before they fall off. In other words, unless you allow them to sit back and relax every once in a while, you may lose them altogether. I suspect that’s right. However, as I exegete the culture in which we live, I can’t help but feel that so much of what we are tasked with preaching from the Word of God is, by nature, highly challenging. It’s highly challenging to most if not all of us because it’s just so jolly counter-cultural! The more post-Christian our society becomes, the more the Bible stands in stark contrast to culture. For this reason, I’m comfortable in afflicting the comfortable. But I don’t want to knock anyone off their seat. Something I grapple with often is the challenging art of artful challenge. Because let’s face it, not many of our hearers are sitting there because they long to be stirred and challenged to sacrifice more, risk more, and live more authentically in the mould of Christ. Our challenge therefore must be highly winsome. It was early in the first year of my theology training that I first understood that as preachers, our job is not to give people what they want. What people want is not often what they need. But our job is not to merely give them what they need either. I try to give my 8-year-old plenty of vegetables because I know she needs them… you get my point! Our job as preachers is to teach people to want what they need. At our recent NZ Baptist Hui, we were challenged by Jonny Weir (Director of Ministry Training at Carey Baptist College) to cast an inspiring vision for our people – a vision worth giving up their lives for. ‘Should’ is a terrible master and so obligation is a poor motivation. If our desire is to motivate our people to live authentic, cruciform lives, then we need to make them want it more than anything else! When I was younger I loved Garfield comics. (Garfield and I share two very significant things in common – we both love sleep and lasagne!) In one particular cartoon, Garfield tells Odie, “Odie, you’re a pearl. And do you know how pearls are formed in oysters? Through years of constant irritation!” The terminology may be a little harsh, but if it’s pearls we want, then it’s consistent, winsome irritation we must provide. Therefore let us irritate our people with the meaningless folly of worldly pursuits. Let us irritate them with the tragedy of lives wasted chasing the cheap and temporal. Let us irritate them with the yawning chasm between material wealth and Kingdom riches. But above all, let us irritate them with a grand vision of what could be, if we’d only give our lives wholeheartedly and unreservedly to the service of the King and His Kingdom. One final thought… in my short experience of pastoral ministry and preaching, I’ve found that personal stories and testimonies are incredibly powerful motivators. By nature, most people suffer from varying degrees of F.O.M.O. – Fear Of Missing Out. When we share our own compelling stories of what we’ve seen God do through our willingness to step out boldly for Him, we encourage and challenge our people to live a bigger vision. There are many great testimonies from all sorts of people online, but telling other people’s stories doesn’t have quite the same impact. So finally, let us challenge ourselves to live the kind of lives we wish to see in our people, and share the stories that can’t help but emerge!

know thy audience – nigel irwin


The old saying goes, ‘to assume makes an ass out of you and me’. Recently I disproved this saying, showing instead that to assume often makes an ass out of me… and only me. In April I had the privilege of speaking at the 2016 Youth of the Nation Conference here in Whanganui. I admit I was feeling more nervous than I usually would be ahead of a speaking engagement. I was wading into unknown waters and was chronically aware of just how much things have changed since I was a spotty-faced, squeaky-voiced teenager.

Throughout the preparation of my seminar content, I was wracking my brain trying to come up with a novel and inventive way of bringing multi-media into my presentation. I sensed that the good old Powerpoint presentation wasn’t going to cut it for a youth event, and I needed to do something a little bit different, and perhaps just a little bit off-the-wall. Something with impact, something that would make a lasting impression and keep people talking long past lunchtime.

And then it hit me. Facebook. Genius! I created a Facebook page especially for my seminar. My thinking was that in a conference with several hundred teenagers, there would be several hundred smartphones, all connected to the World Wide Web via mobile data. Rather than beaming my content onto the screen via the projector, I converted each ‘slide’ to a JPEG, and made up a photo album on the Facebook page, where each attendee could gain fast, easy, and continual access.

It was a plan so cunning you could pin a tail on it and call it a weasel. Furthermore, I would gain audience interaction and participation by directing individuals to the Facebook page, and asking them to come and read aloud various parts of the presentation. I bought iTunes and Google ‘Play’ vouchers as participation bribes, and I was all set to go. I was inspired, excited, and certain this seminar would be a smash hit.

I stood at the lectern and looked around at my eager, tech-savvy audience. My opening line went something like this, “Hey team, how many of you here have a smartphone?” I expected about 80% of hands to go up. It was more like 20%. Ahem. “Okay… well, um… how many of you have mobile data?” Another 20% – not 20% of the whole, just 20% of the 20% who had smartphones.

My heart sank. My confidence fled. My seminar began to crumble before my eyes. My presentation floundered. I learned afterward that the most popular and talked-about speakers at this conference didn’t use much technology. One guy used t-shirts and paint. Most just relied on a powerful message and commanding stage-presence.

The moral of the story for me is this: know thy audience, and assume nothing!

I confess I’ve been uncomfortable with a lot of the push toward visually-stimulating, interactive preaching aids. Call me old-school, but my (perhaps idealistic) hope has been that quality content and strong presentation skills ought to be enough to keep the attention of my listeners. We can have our eyeballs titillated and ears tickled almost everywhere in the world these days – does that mean it’s the right strategy for the church?

Have we all bought too quickly into millennial pleas to change our preaching mode to embrace an emerging new breed of modern Christian? At least in the case of this particular youth event, it would seem so. What do you think?

preaching freestyle – nigel irwin


I once heard a preacher begin his sermon by saying, “Well, I haven’t written a sermon today – I’m just going to wing it and see what the Spirit wants me to say.” Sadly, I’m not sure that what followed was necessarily what the Spirit wanted him to say. I assumed that the preacher in question either had an overly busy week and ran out of time for sermon preparation, or that he perhaps didn’t see written preparation as being important. I hoped it was the former.

I’ve been preaching for almost ten years; on an almost weekly basis for the last three or so. Until quite recently, I’d been in the habit of preparing at length, and then writing each sermon in full. I couldn’t paint a picture if my life depended on it, but I do like to think that words are my paintbrushes and provocative prose, my art. For most of my preaching life, I’ve been unsure which I enjoy more – preaching sermons, or writing them.

In those days, I preached from a full manuscript every Sunday. Occasionally I tried preaching only from bullet points and bold, underlined words. This proved to be an out and out failure as I found myself preaching in stilted sound bites, rather than flowing oratory and smooth, clever transitions.

Earlier this year, through a number of circumstances, I was challenged to preach with no notes at all. I recalled the words of Dr. Robert Smith, Professor of Preaching at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama. He said, “If you trust the Holy Spirit to reveal the message to you in your study, then trust Him to reveal it to you in the pulpit.”

The first time I appeared at the front of the church with nothing but my Bible, I was more than a little nervous. But I was fired up about the text and the key points were clear in my mind. I’d spent hours in my study writing out notes in longhand, and by the time I got to Sunday morning, I could see very clearly the shape and form this message would take.

The feedback I received from that first attempt was heartening. In fact, one lovely older gentleman said he believed my preaching had now reached a new level, since I no longer relied on a written sermon, instead relying more fully on the Holy Spirit.

After my nervous beginnings, I am now a convert to this form of preaching. It will not work for everyone, but it works very well for me. I feel as though I’ve been set free – free to express myself in relational, personal ways, rather than the pre-scripted ways of my former preaching style. I feel much more emotive and engaged, connecting with the congregation in a way I couldn’t before.

They say that the text needs to have changed the preacher before it can change the congregation, and for me at least, preaching in this way allows me to express with more animation and authenticity how my heart has been touched by the message as I’ve prepared during the week.

I still prepare every sermon in full – praying, reading, waiting, listening, and writing pages of notes. But that old man was right, my preaching has reached a new level, as testified by the consistent feedback of my congregation.

Some of you may be reading this and thinking, “There’s no way I could do that” and that’s absolutely fine. We are all wired differently! But if you’ve ever wondered whether preaching ‘freestyle’ might work for you, can I encourage you to give it a go? You might just surprise yourself.