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take time – andrew butcher


Preaching is often about timing.

The length of the sermon. The right word for the right season. The time in the liturgical calendar. The time to pray. The time to spend preparing.

The time to put down our notes and let the Holy Spirit work, bless and minister to us and to our listeners.

This year, for me at least, it is also about time out.

For the first time in several years, from this point on, and for the rest of this calendar year, I am not going to preach another sermon.

I am having a sabbatical.

I am taking a chance to recharge, renew and restore. I am clearing the decks so that the only things on my deck are two chairs and a table. The chair for me and my Lord, the table for us to put down the bread and the wine we eat as we meet together.

I am going to read many books, pray many prayers, go for many long walks.

I am going to sleep more, eat better, and take good care of myself and let others take care of me too.

I am going to go from top gear to first gear and enjoy life in the slow lane.

I am not going to find this easy. But I am finding it necessary.

And, possibly, hopefully, prayerfully, when I get back behind the pulpit in 2016 I will be preaching a sermon that comes from fertile ground from this fallow season.

The hymn-writer Longstaff says it well:

Take time to be holy, the world rushes on;
Spend much time in secret, with Jesus alone.
By looking to Jesus, like Him thou shalt be;
Thy friends in thy conduct His likeness shall see.

the information age – andrew butcher

Information age

How much of what we preach should we be informing people? How much should we be inspiring them? How much comfort should we offer? How often should we challenge?

Increasingly I am of the view that information is a good place to start. There will be some in the congregation who imbibed Scripture and the Baptist Hymn Book with their mother’s milk. But there will be many others, quite possibly more, who won’t know why there are four gospels, who Paul is, why Nehemiah had to build a wall or why Joshua had to march around one to bring it down.

And beginning with the basics means coming into a preacher’s task of illuminating the Word of God by the help of the Spirit through the front door. Tempted as we might be to dive straight into the theological point or the practical application, our listeners may miss the point if we don’t show them why it’s important.

Perhaps as preachers our starting point should be “assume nothing”. That may mean we are telling people what they already know, but it may also mean that we are introducing people to Scripture and how to read it (what does Matthew 5:1 mean unless you already understand the 5 represents the chapter and 1 the verse?) It may mean we’re taking people on a tour of first-century Palestine and the life of those who fished on Galilee as much as we’re then drawing a line between that and 21st century New Zealand.

And we do all of this at a time of countless distractions, where information comes at us from every direction and often through the small device we hold in our hand. It might be that we, as preachers, have to cut through the clutter and the noise that is generated by this overload of information. We need to give attention to what the Spirit is saying to the church, which requires us to be still and listen. And to do so we should start with Scripture, we should guide people through it, we should equip people with the tools to best understand it, we should pray as we read it, and we should proclaim as we begin: “Behold, the word of God”.

preaching and praying in poetry and prose – andrew butcher


I like using other people’s words when I preach. I don’t mean that I plagiarise sermons from (if there is such a site!). Rather, I find the poems of Joy Cowley or James K. Baxter or the prayers of Karl Barth or John Calvin to be a wonderful addition to what Scripture says and what I say.

My view is that generations before me have grappled with preaching Scripture and have productively and positively expressed their challenges in fine poetry and flowing prose. In the pulpit I am a mortal at the feet of giants. I am following a long and wonderful tradition of men and women who have opened the pages of Scripture and said ‘hear what the Spirit is saying to the church’.  In that way, the words of others really can add to our preaching. They are like spices on food: they enhance and bring out latent flavours.

Words other than our own and Scripture’s can also subtract from our preaching. We can be tempted by writers we like, or films we watch, or music we hear and think that because we like it, we will put it in our sermon. What can then happen is that a sermon can end up like a badly edited book, laden with extraneous material that diverts from the main story, confuses the reader, and is less of a sweet-smelling potpourri and more of a messy mishmash. That’s where reading the sermon aloud beforehand, if only to yourself (and better if to someone else) takes care of keeping in that which contributes to our understanding of Scripture and taking out that which diverts from it.

We are not the first people to ever preach a particular passage or to ask life’s persistent questions. Where we can, where it’s useful and where it’s edifying, we should look at what others have said, and whether in poetry or in prose, say it again.

the sound of silence – andrew butcher


A preacher friend of mine recently lost his voice. I suggested to him that he could start his sermon with a moment of silence… a very long moment of silence.

I said it in jest, but there is something to be said about the preacher who says nothing.

There are moments when we, as preachers, as worshippers, as fellow pilgrims with others on this journey of faith, are faced with that which strikes us dumb. It may be devastating news, for which even well-meaning words ring hollow. It may be the holiness of God, for which the best-formed words are inadequate. It may be in response to the working of the Spirit, in which our spoken words need to give way to God who is speaking to us.

And indeed preaching is always us speaking after God. We may, of course, speak about God, even to God, but it is God who speaks life and all living things into being. And a sermon, drawing from Scripture, is indeed a living, breathing word of life.

We may be inclined to want to start God’s sentence for Him, perhaps even to finish it too. We may be taken by the sound of our own voices or distracted by the many other voices that crowd our space. We may be reluctant or hesitant to listen. We may be fearful of what silence might bring.

But if silence is, among other things, unspoken prayers – an opportunity for God to speak to us and to his people – then perhaps we need more of it. Perhaps we need to start or end our sermons with the sound of silence. And trust that God, who invites, again and again, those who have ears to hear, may have our attention. And out of that silence we may hear God speak.

why should a preacher pray? – andrew butcher

. . . because a preacher before he or she expounds Scripture must first stand under it.

The preacher’s authority is not given virtue of the act of preaching, but by the authority of Scripture.

. . . because a preacher, high up – perhaps physically, perhaps in the mind of the congregation, perhaps in his or her own self-image – needs to be reminded of the lost and the lowly, the ill and the infirm, the depressed and the dispossessed in the congregation.

The preacher carries wounds too.

. . . because a preacher may be tempted to use clever words, amazing graphics, and song and dance as a way to appeal to his or her congregation.

The medium is a poor substitute for the message.  Scripture can be trusted to lead people to God.

. . . because a preacher may desire the praise of others, accolade and acclaim.

The glory we seek is instead in the cross of Christ.

. . . because a preacher may seek to be effective and to achieve results.

“Effectiveness” should not be mistaken for holiness and the only path to holiness is through prayer.

. . . because a preacher may be inclined to be lazy, and to rush in his or her preparation of a sermon out of habit or complacency.

Scripture and its exegesis need to be treated with the seriousness and reverence it deserves.

. . . because a preacher may be anxious, worried and overwhelmed with sorrow.

Trust the strength of God when all our strength is gone.

. . . because the preacher’s first and last act is to pray: to stand in silence before the God who speaks all things into being, to kneel in confession before the holiness of God, to worship Christ in whom we live and move and have our being, and to give thanks for God’s provision and faithfulness.

Why should a preacher pray?

. . . because the path to standing in the pulpit begins with kneeling in prayer.

not future perfect – andrew butcher

It’s 2051 and you’re standing up to preach to your congregation.

What might they look like?

They will be old. Over 25 percent of New Zealanders will be over the age of 65. They will have life experience, but also be facing issues of ill-health and mortality.

They will be ethnically diverse. Statistics New Zealand projections indicate that at least 16 percent of New Zealanders will be ethnically Asian by 2016 – so fast forward to 2051 and the percentage will be even greater. If you’re inAuckland, the ethnic diversity will be stark. Only half of your congregation will be ethnically European; the rest Maori, Pacific and Asian. They will probably speak English, but might not understand ‘Kiwi’ illustrations or appreciate the fast pace of the preacher’s delivery.

They will come from all faiths and none. The main reason for the decline in church attendance in New Zealand is from those who are leaving Christian churches, rather than those arriving with different faiths. They won’t have a background understanding of the Christian faith that we might have relied on once. I heard of a little child who walked into a church and asked his father why there was a big plus sign at the front. It might sound a silly example, but it illustrates that this child won’t be alone in his assumptions.

They will live in an unstable world. The global shifts between the great powers –China and theUS, the rise ofIndia, the instabilities on the Korean peninsula, the decline of the Euro – will mean that the stability we have got used to in our part of the world is unlikely to continue. The congregation may therefore be afraid, be very afraid. This current generation has never known New Zealanders at war. Future generations might have to face that harsh reality.

They will live in a fragile world. Environmental change will be swift, radical and unforgiving. Already parts of the Pacific and Asia are disappearing under rising sea waters; ‘climate change refugees’ are moving into neighbouring countries; and people’s livelihoods’ on rice paddies and arable land are under threat by the building of dams and attempted control of river flows. This will be more than a theoretical possibility; for many it will be a practical nightmare. And it won’t just be half a world away either.

They will spend less. The global financial crisis has fundamentally altered both the global economic system and the way that people use and understand money. There is no return to the heady days of debt-fuelled lifestyles. People will be forced to live within their means or find themselves relying more on help from government and others. This will be the ‘new normal’. The way we understand the spending and consumer habits of our congregations will have to change.

They will be technologically savvy. The role of social media is changing governments and will inevitably impact how people engage with all aspects of church. Maybe every preacher will have a blog, I don’t know. But the ubiquity of technological changes will undoubtedly impact our congregations and how we engage with them.

But – whatever these trends and their implications, there are two things we cannot plan for: ‘events, dear boy, events’ (as one politician put it) and the work of God in his world.

If we went back fifty years would anybody – seriously? – have predicted that the growth of the Christian church in the world would be in Asia? Would anybody – seriously? – have predicted the rise of charismatic and Pentecostal churches at the expense of traditional mainline denominations?

These trends will happen, one way or the other, and we should plan and prepare for them. But our planning should never be at the expense of spending more time on our knees praying. God’s work in this world can’t be ascertained by statistics, or maps, or global shifts. And our response to those trends won’t be to only read sociological texts, economic handbooks and guidelines on foreign policy (though those things have their place in our understanding of the world). Rather, our response will be to soak ourselves in Scripture, to understand God’s work in his world, and to be reminded that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’.

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Dr Andrew Butcher attends and occasionally preaches at Tawa Baptist Church, Wellington. He is Director, Policy and Research at the Asia New Zealand Foundation. His personal website is

andrew butcher: through the earthquake, wind and fire

It was the first time I’ve ever had people screaming during my sermon. I’d prepared a brief ten-minute sermon on Psalm 139 for a Christening and for the entire time I was delivering it there were screaming children, others playing the piano, or calling out to their parents. I’ve preached in some pretty interesting settings, including prison, but until that Sunday no one had screamed the way those children did.

Afterward I felt very dejected. If anyone had heard a word I’d said then I’d be amazed at their hearing. I delivered the sermon without pausing, sat down and wondered why I’d made the effort.

And then, over afternoon tea, someone came up to me and said that what I had said had moved them to tears. I was flabbergasted. Not only had she heard what I’d said, which was amazing enough, but she had heard it enough to be moved by it. Afterward, I felt very encouraged.

Variations on that theme have happened to me before, not the screaming of course, but people coming up to me afterward and saying how they really connected with a turn-of-phrase, illustration or passing comment. And most times the things they connected with really were passing comments – they were sentences on my way to a point. But the comments I received from people were that those sentences, which were insignificant in my mind – if you like, supporting characters to the main protagonist – were where they heard God speak to them.

Preaching is, of course, one of the most visible forms of ministry. But there’s also much that’s invisible about it as well: the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of our hearers, the experiences of our listeners and how those frame what they hear us say, and the way some people connect to the stories and others to the theological facts.

And that’s what makes preaching one of the most humbling tasks I do. I might spend hours crafting the sermon, choosing the right words, finding appropriate illustrations and adopting a logical structure. I might adjust my tone, speed and volume in its delivery in order to underline my major points. And yet, while all of that is important, God’s work through my sermon is more important.

More than once I’ve said to my wife, ‘they got that out of my sermon?’

Of course, sometimes people respond to my sermon in misunderstanding ways, or in latching onto a minor point and seemingly ignoring everything else I said, or in making some comment about the colour of the PowerPoint slide. Those are all discouraging comments.

How many of you have had similar humbling experiences? How many of you have had people come up to you afterwards, or write to you at a later date, and express how God worked through something you thought wasn’t much, or was told through a noisy din? How many of you have received criticism for sharing what was deeply personal and meaningful to you, burning in your heart, but yet have also received gratitude and praise for the very same words?

I have. But – and this is a very important but – I nonetheless trust that God uses my meagre offering and transforms it by his Spirit into a life-changing encounter with Christ. That’s what makes it humbling: preaching is God’s work before it is mine; it is God’s word revealed rather than my word inspired.

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Dr Andrew Butcher attends and occasionally preaches at Tawa Baptist Church, Wellington. He is Director, Policy and Research at the Asia New Zealand Foundation. His personal website is