Seeking God (Part 1): First Thing

It was my first Sunday at the new church; my first message to the congregation. What would I say? I think most pastors struggle. I did. Not that I don’t have anything to say. If you are a fairly seasoned pastor, you have, in fact, too many things to say; so many issues to address; so many things to do. But what should be the first thing on the agenda?

As I spoke, I said to the church, “I don’t know what your expectations are. But, then again, maybe I do. In a crowd like this the expectations are many and varied. You may have gone along on the same journey, but perceptions are different, interpretation of events are different, internalisation of the experiences are different. And depending on what you feel is important you will also expect those things to be addressed as quickly as possible. They are all valid and good. We are all good Christians who want no less than the good of the church. But good must give way to…?”

I stopped for a dramatic pause.  Not expecting any kind of verbal response from this fairly conservative middle class medium-size congregation. But an extrovert shot out, “Better!” I hesitated. Seeing that was not quite what I was looking for, she shouted out again, “Best! Good must give way to best!

I said, “That’s good, but it’s not good enough. Good must give way to?… God! And it’s more than just dropping an “o”. There is a huge gap between good and God. It is God we want, not just good. It is God that we want to glorify, not to showcase how good our church is. That means, we must want to do the God-thing, not just good things.”

In order for us to do the God-thing, we need to hear from the Lord—to hear what His agenda is for the church or our ministry, our life and our vocation. Sometimes we run ahead of God, doing things He never meant for us to do. More often than not, we lag way behind, failing to do what He says we are to do. However, I think, the reality is that we haven’t a clue what God is up to, because we have not been listening to what He’s been saying. To do the God-thing, it is imperative that we hear from the Lord. And in order to hear from the Lord, we need to seek Him. That’s the first thing on our agenda—to seek God for His agenda, whether it’s for our life or for the church.

Lim Soon Hock Empowering Churches

(For Part 2 click here)

Preaching the Same Sermon Again (…and again)

When I was pastoring a church I preached largely to the same people each Sunday. Obviously, it had to be a different sermon. That’s the challenge of a pastor: to bring a fresh message from the Word to the same faithfuls. The upside is that it keeps you studying and growing, besides stretching your creativity so that the faithful won’t find you boring.

Now that I am no longer a pastor of a church, I get to preach in different churches. The temptation for me is to choose my “better” sermons and recycle them. After all, as someone said, “If a sermon is not worth repeating, it is not worth preaching in the first place!” The downside is that it can make a preacher lazy; you don’t study as much anymore, so you don’t enlarge and grow. Furthermore, recycled sermons will not come out as fresh as when you first prepared and preached it to the original group.

I believe the same applies to seminars. Something that I am doing much more now than I used to when I was pastoring a church. Usually it will be a seminar from among my repertoire that you find listed in the website’s Seminar page (http://empoweringchurches.my/seminars/). But just as often I will be asked to do something that’s not in the list. My first reaction would be, “Oh boy, more work!” But, inevitably it will turn out to be better for everyone, including me.

It’s good for those at the receiving end because they get something fresh; not something that I just pull out from the files. It will be material that I have taken time to research and study, thought and worked through from almost ground zero. “Almost”, because I can only teach on areas that I am fairly well versed in; I will not teach on a subject that I have little understanding or experience.

Furthermore, as I am preparing to teach this new material I will inevitably be thinking of the people or the church, and the context of their experience. In other words, I tailor-make the content, structure and style of the seminar to them.

The bottom line for all of us preachers and teachers of the Word is that we need to keep ourselves spiritually fresh so that there is a freshness when we preach and teach, even if we might be reusing a sermon or seminar material. If a sermon or seminar doesn’t excite you anymore, even if has a proven track record, don’t preach or teach it. It won’t come-off in the same way—it won’t take off. We are short-changing the people who have come to listen to us.

If I were to repeat a sermon or seminar material I would rework it; throw out the not-so-useful stuff and add in new and better material. I would ask the Holy Spirit to tell me what I should emphasize for this particular group of people or church. I would try and tailor-make it for the people who have so graciously invited me to minister to them. Most of all I want to honour Jesus who called me to this awesome service!

Preaching and Teaching are Not the Same Thing

Preach the WordI believe that the failure to make a distinction between preaching and teaching is one of the key reasons for poor sermons. Sermons that are more teaching in content and style of presentation but attempt to pass off as preaching is a serious cause of disconnect between the preacher and the people in the congregation. The what and the why of preaching and teaching are different, and hence, when  a speaker employs them depends on whether he is preaching or teaching.

To understand the difference between the two we must first look at their respective purpose. The purpose of teaching is to help people understand the Bible and it’s truths; to help the listeners know about God and what He has said. Broadly speaking, teaching addresses the mind more than the heart. This does not mean that the teacher does not challenge his students to apply the Word into their lives. He does, and he must, as teaching of the Bible has to lead to life-change.

On the other hand, the purpose of preaching is to help people hear what the Word of God is saying to them now. It targets the heart; to inspire, challenge and cause the listeners to apply God’s Word in their lives—leading to life-change.

The sermon at a worship service is where preaching ought to take place. However, in many churches (across all denominations, but especially among conservative evangelical churches) teaching makes up the bulk of the sermon. Explanation is given by the preacher about how he had arrived at his interpretation. He may go into the original language, provide the historical context of the Bible text, take the listeners on a tour of the geography, give the different possible interpretations as he quotes this and that scholar, and refers to other Bible references to underscore his interpretation, but he never gets to the address the question, So what?

What? is what teaching focuses on. So what? is what preaching should focus on. It is the message of the passage; the big point of the sermon. It cannot be left to the last five minutes of the sermon; the preacher would have lost his listeners to the message because he had lost them with his elaborate explanation of the text. The message may be hinted at early in the sermon;  certainly it must be developed as the sermon is preached, with plenty of time for amplification and application after the thrust has been stated. For a sermon to have been effective, the listeners must go away knowing clearly what the message was about and be impacted by it.

Is teaching not important in a sermon? It certainly is—very important, because the message is based on the Bible. In other words, teaching must be the basis of the preaching; teaching must inform the preaching. However, in a sermon the teaching content cannot take a disproportionate amount of time. The preacher does not do his exegesis at the pulpit; he does that in his study. At the pulpit he preaches the message that he has distilled from his study, having sought the Lord in prayer, and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

The pulpit at the weekly worship service is not the place to do teaching (I should qualify that with the word “elaborate”). Bible classes and special seminars are the places where more in-depth Bible teaching happens. And that, we must have in our churches. Christians must be know the Word of God; they must be taught the Bible. But not through the sermon at the weekly worship service (don’t take this sentence out of context!). The purpose of preaching is to bring a message from the Lord based on the Word of God to the listeners that they need to hear now.