Category Archives: Ministry

Average preachers, a follow-up

Last week I wrote a tip for average preachers. The tip (pray for better listeners) follows my belief that sermon quality for average preachers depends on the quality of the listeners.

I kept that bog post short, even though my mind was full of other implications. This post is all about the implications.

The big implication is this: usual church preaching is a co-operative activity. Preaching is a team event, not solo performance – it’s the activity of a body, not a hero. Speaker and listeners work together.

The ways we live that out are many:

  • We start with thankfulness for each other
    Speaker & listeners are joining in the great task of hearing God speak, with dedication to faithful obedience. It’s immense that we do so together, no matter what the numbers, abilities, etc
  • We encourage everyone’s part
    It’s wonderful that people come to church (preacher or not). Let’s say that more often, and to each other as well
  • We work on the preaching setting
    How’s the room you meet in? Can people hear OK? Is it too cold, too warm? Are there Bibles available, especially for visitors? I’m sure there are weeks when a sermon ‘worked’ because someone decided to close the back door and block the traffic noise
  • We work outside the preaching setting
    A church that builds its members in love for 167 hours a week will make better use of the 168th hour of the week, the hour that includes a sermon
  • We train listening ability
    Everyone helps training happen, preachers and non-preachers. We can learn better how to listen well, to understand, to seek clarification, and to expect God’s word to change us. In addition, churches can run formal training on making the most of sermons
  • We practice humility
    This is for the preachers. It’s not that our finely-crafted words are the secret to church life. The ‘secret’ is God’s word calling forth faith in his children – if God uses us, that’s a wonderful privilege and kindness


 

A tip for average preachers

No teasing – here’s the tip for average preachers: pray for better listeners.

This post is not about extraordinary and brilliant preachers. These people have wonderful content that’s true and challenging. Their communication is excellent, being clear, engaging and memorable. Even those who disagree enjoy the listening.

This post is not about poor preachers, who fail in both content and communication. Everyone who hears them goes away confused.

I am writing about the majority of preachers. They have something to say, but  are not Einsteins of the text. These preachers communicate adequately, but they won’t take Olympic gold medals for oration.

I’m convinced that, especially for average preachers, the quality of the sermon depends on the quality of the listeners. Faithful and devoted listeners make for good sermons. Grumbling and faithless listeners make for poor sermons.

the quality of the sermon depends on the quality of the listeners

Why? Because the listener to average preaching will find what they’re looking for.

A grumbler has real reason to say, ‘He’s not that insightful. The jokes are half funny. And those tongue stumbles when he gets excited – I just can’t listen.’ It’s poetic justice that a selfish listener gets no benefit for self.

A good listener is the opposite. This person finds the gold amid the dross, and overlooks odd verbal habits of the preacher. This generous listener is kind to the preacher, and the result is spiritual blessing to the one who hears.

So, as an acknowledgement of our own ‘averageness’, pray for better listeners.

 


 

To Japan on mission

The Clapham family are linked to Albury Bible Church. They were part of our fellowship while living in Albury (and Nathan was a ministry trainee with us). And we have an official link with them in mission to Japan.

They cannot be at church with us every week. So support for them needs dedication and discipline. Regular reminders help. And that’s what this is!

Here’s a map/video to show their location (I don’t believe they’re actually on the railway line, however).

And here are some prayer points from July 2014

  • Please pray for a non-Christian family the Claphams are getting to know
  • Pray for the Claphams’ godliness and character as they continue to settle into Japan
  • Pray for Samuel and Ian as they learn the language and settle into school
  • Pray for wisdom in care for Samuel and Ian, when they struggle with life in Japan
  • Pray for the gospel to affect peoples heart and lives in Japan


 

Solid Christian … keep listening (ii)

In the first part of this two-poster, I urged well-established Christians to keep listening to God’s word.

Part one is the real meat of this mini-series. So if you only have enough mental space for one blog idea today, ignore this second post.

(There’s a bit of danger in part two: if it’s cut free from listening closely to the Bible, what is written below could become an excuse for ignoring God. You can ask me more about that, if you like.)

earHere’s the nub of this post: well-established Christian folk need to keep listening to people.

Those who have been Christians for some time become involved in many ministries. They lead Bible study groups, teach Sunday School, visit people in homes, preach, talk to the grieving, pray for friends, follow-up newcomers to church, … Some people are employed to to these things, many aren’t.

We heard God’s word about Jesus, so we press on as servants of Jesus.

We can, however, become so good at our ministries that we stop listening. We have a answer to trot out. We easily identify the emotions someone is experiencing. We know the theological category that ‘fits’ the problem. And so we speak, without listening.

  • When youth group member raises predestination, we shoot out a pat answer (instead of asking, ‘Why do you think this is important?’)
  • When the parent speaks of tiredness, we think first of their poor techniques in keeping discipline (instead of asking how fatigue affects them)
  • When a friend starts to explain how they are, we finish their sentences

Often our impulse is right – we do have relevant experience, or helpful knowledge. But by not listening we mess up the opportunity to help. We come across as know-alls, rather than as help-alls. We look strong on knowledge but weak on wisdom.

Of course, ministry situations are always routine. There’s nothing new under the sun: the call to repentance and faith, struggling with deep ideas about God, striving to obey God in hard places, despair at continuing sin … they’ve all happened before.

But when a person shares with us their situation, it’s not routine at all – it’s personal. So let’s honour the privilege of hearing by actually listening.

 


 

Quick review: Ministry in Disaster Settings

Ministry in Disaster Settings Lessons from the edgeMinistry in Disaster Settings Lessons from the edge by Stephen Robinson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a good read for anyone doing Christian ministry (paid or unpaid). The book began with interviews with chaplains involved in very stressful settings: the Granville Train Disaster, Kempsey Bus Crash, Port Arthur Massacre, and Thredbo Landslide.

These stories draw us in from the start of the book, which then goes on to reflect on a number of areas: the nature of ministry in these tough circumstances; theological reflections; tips and lessons.

This is all great stuff. It’s full of important observations. It illustrates the varied types of response people make, as well as varying kinds of support given to chaplains (and others). The appendices alone are a most useful resource. Three appendices I think I will return to address symptoms common in emergency response workers, what it means to defuse, and what it means to debrief.

There are two criticisms I have of the book. Please only read these if I’ve convinced you that it’s a very good book and worth reading!

First, the interviews and reflection are grounded in disasters. That is, exceptional situations of chaos and mayhem. Yet the conclusions are applied equally to general emergency work. As a volunteer ambulance chaplain, I am naturally interested in these conclusions and lessons. But I think there needs to be more effort put into explaining how lessons from ‘big trauma’ are applicable to everyday emergency service work. I suspect there is connection and similarity – along with significant difference. A disaster, I’d guess, is more than a scaled-up everyday emergency.

Secondly, I wish that theological reflection in Christian circles had more depth when speaking of incarnational ministry. This book did as I’ve seen often: ‘Jesus became flesh, that’s a model for us.’ It has become a simplistic ministry cliché, bypassing the theology of Jesus’ two natures, of creator taking on aspects of creation, etc. If we use such a high-powered theology to justify care for neighbour it doesn’t improve our care, but seems to water down the theology. I can feel a hobby-horse coming on, so will stop there …

Overall: a good book, worth reading, and full of reflection on caring for those confronted with trauma.


 

View all my reviews

Warning! Volunteer week

It’s National Volunteer Week.

I am grateful and comforted by community volunteering. I can call the SES if winds damage my house. Volunteer coaches help my kids at sport. Dedicated locals provide food and a friendly face to those in need. People go into classrooms to assist those troubled in reading. The list of volunteering positions is endless.

It’s great to say thanks to generous volunteers.

Churches are places of some of the most intense volunteering. Paid ministers get ‘seen’, but the hugest effort is voluntary: praying, visiting, feeding, setting up, administering, teaching, singing, encouraging, inviting … Thank you to all faithful volunteers. And thanks to God who equips and strengthens all his servants.

But there’s danger. Christian ministry has to be careful not to adopt all the practices of National Volunteer Week.

In particular, we should be wary of what heaps of volunteers say when pushed in front of a microphone. Again and again people urge us to volunteer because, ‘You will gain so much from the experience.’ The message? Volunteer because you will benefit: fun, friends, skill development, teamwork, contacts, meaning, and purpose. All these will be yours! Who knows where volunteering will take you?

If this were to become a common Christian way of motivating volunteers, then we will have stopped being Christian.

The gospel message is of grace, freely given. God’s gift is not a purchase or transaction for mutual benefit – it’s all of him. Grace is not the same as making a bank deposit – allowing the bank our money for a while so we can gain interest.

Jesus said, ‘It’s more blessed to give than to receive’ (Acts 20:35). Current inspiration to volunteer communicates, ‘If you give a bit you’ll receive heaps.’ There’s a world of difference between these two ways. The first is gospel, for it lives out grace. The second is essentially selfish.

If you are a Christian volunteer, and if you invite others to volunteer, make it gospel-shaped volunteering: give without seeking a return, give love to others freely and abundantly.

 


 

Quick review: Six steps to loving your church

Six Steps to Loving Your ChurchThis is another in the Matthias Media series of Six Steps … studies. There’s some video input (two short videos each session), as well as discussion questions. It’s well-suited to use in a group, but I reckon these questions could also work for a solo reader.

The studies are for any and every Christian. And they aim to help us move from being consumers and users of church to being loving servants of church. It aims to be a series that changes behaviour at church, as well as thinking.

Fitting in with the ‘behaviour and thinking change’ aim, these six steps do not include in-depth and lengthy study of Bible passages. A couple of the studies don’t look at the Bible at all. It felt a bit odd not to open the Bible – but perhaps that’s evidence of how I’ve been small-group-inculturated. In any case, the six weeks are all underpinned by clearly-explained biblical ideas about church.

Also fitting the aim of real change, each week has assignments. For example, don’t sit in your ‘normal’ seat at church. Or, think of people to invite to church, then share those plans with the group.

In my group, people loved the assignments. They made a strong link between the ideas we discussed and our regular behaviour. By making the link, we were better able to remember the ideas, too.

Because the ideas link from study to study, and because assignments are set and then followed-up, it really is best for people to get to each study. It’s possible to benefit even after missing part of the series – but much more possible if you can make it to each of the six steps.

The discussion guide has leaders’ notes. They proved mostly superfluous to us, but would perhaps give confidence to a very new discussion leader.

I highly recommend this short course. It can fit in well as part of an existing small group (as long as you usually spend more time in the Bible and at prayer). It can also be used as a stand-alone series, perhaps in a church ministry training programme.

 


 

When gossip is good

Gossip is, undoubtedly, a most effective way to hurt people.

from www.veryicon.com

from www.veryicon.com

Gossip is part of Paul’s portrait of what it looks like to be debased (Romans 1:29). Tales about people are the fast food of conversation: salty, fatty, tasty (Proverbs 18:8).

So I am glad when Christians speak about the danger of gossip. I’ve seen gossip addressed in sermons, church announcements, Christian books, and on line writing. Great!

In these, the final exhortation is usually something like this: there’s no need to talk about another person, except to the person. Or: just don’t talk about people.

This is, perhaps, the purist view. It’s appealing – we know there’s danger, so say nothing.

I’m not convinced.

The new testament example suggests that talking about people – even in their absence – was normal. And OK.

When caring for a church widow it’s worth knowing if she has a reputation for good works (see 1 Timothy 5:9-10). Reputations are found on people’s lips. It’s nice to commend widows like this. There must also have been ones who failed the reputation test.

Likewise, an overseer in church must be well thought of by outsiders (1 Timothy 3:7). We find out that information by talking about it – with those who don’t even believe the gospel.

Jesus himself pumped his disciples for the latest goss: Who do the crowds say that I am? (Luke 9:18) He expected his followers to be part of the rumour mill.

So I am against gossip, but I am not a gossip purist. This may seem like a trivial point. I think it matters. Here are a couple of ways when I think it counts.

  • Firstly, Christians are to live by love for God and neighbour. We’re about people and relationships. Relationships involve talk and pondering. Gossip purists make it simpler than people and relationships by reducing things to a rule.
  • Secondly, banning ‘gossip’ can provide cover for wrong. Shady activity can flourish, undiscovered, under the moral pressure of ‘Don’t talk like that’.

Please don’t gossip. But please do talk about people. Perhaps you should now go and have a chat about this blog post. Talk about whether I am right or wrong!

 


 

Working assumptions

We get to know people gradually. I don’t know now what I will learn about you tomorrow, next week, next year.

But I can’t wait until then before talking. We have the conversation now, I respond now, and I choose how love you now.

This is where working assumptions are so handy.

A working assumption is a tentative conclusion or belief, on the basis of what I already know. It’s a generalisation, but used in a specific situation. Like any generalisation (even true ones), it will not always apply to a single case.

It’s reasonable to assume, for example, that a New Zealander you meet has a working knowledge of rugby union. So you might ask how they think the All Blacks will play this year. You’ll soon discover if your working assumption is true. In the mean time, you will make progress in the conversation. (I was going to call this a trivial example. But not all rugby fans would be happy …)

Here are some of my working assumptions that help me in Christian ministry. As I seek to encourage people in faith, or introduce them to Jesus, these things are often in mind:

  • If you are human
    … I assume you understand religion. That is, you get the (bad!) idea that we humans, by some right activity, create credit for ourselves. Our efforts reconcile us with God/gods/the spirit world/the impersonal universe. (This doesn’t mean you agree with religion, by the way.)
  • If you are a “not religious” Australian
    … I assume that you don’t understand Christianity. You probably think of Christian faith as a type of religion – a way to work towards God. I might say dozens of times, ‘Christianity is not good works by us, but completely good work by Jesus – it’s his gift’, and hear the response, ‘So if you are good enough, God will accept you?’
  • If you have a Roman Catholic background
    … I assume that you don’t associate God with grace. It’s more likely you’ll think of law or guilt. I say ‘background’, because it works for practising and lapsed Roman Catholics.
  • If you frequently use the word ‘busy’
    … I assume you have a problem with idolatry. Work, interests, or what they produce takes up such a huge portion of life that I sense this is what you really worship. Maybe it’s the money, or status, or sense of security. Or maybe the freedom to lack courage (‘I can’t, work won’t allow it’). This one applies both the believers and unbelievers.
  • If you are a 20-something Australian bloke
    … I assume there’s a lot of fear. Fear of failure, of being found out, of not having it all together, and particularly fear of looking bad in front of your peers.

Certainly this list could continue. What do you think of these specific examples? And what about the broad idea of working assumptions? I’ve said they are tentative, therefore can change. Perhaps you think they’re altogether wrong. I’d love to hear any thoughts you have.

 


 

Ministry aims, vision & plans

Image: Leeds Museum & Galleries, via Flickr

Image: Leeds Museum & Galleries, via Flickr

At our recent church Annual General Meeting my Minister’s report included some scribblings on our aims in ministry. And on why we bother with them. I thought this important to do – because I don’t believe our vision or aims come from the Bible. Not that these are against God’s word! Rather, targets are tools to help us.

I thought some of these ideas might be worth recording in a manner to share with those who were not at the AGM. So here’s some of what I wrote.

Our church vision is not new, but worth remembering. We pray that by 2020, and in God’s goodness, for ABC to have 500 people meet with us for church each week and for ABC to be involved in two church plants.

ABC at the moment can pretty much roll on in its current format: we’re running ministries and paying our bills. It would be easy to think that the kind of church we want to be is the kind of church we are. Or to think that this is the church God wants. Our vision is to point us to the white harvest fields about us (Matthew 9:37-38), and to do something as workers.

The vision also helps us think through our ministries. If we head towards 500, what kind of meeting place is required? How many small group leaders do we need to train each year? And how many Sunday school teachers? What should be our budget? I hope you can see that our vision is very practical.

That vision is for a few year ahead of us. We’ve noticed a gap between that vision and the present day. For this reason we have set some ministry aims for 2014. Here’s what I had to say about them.

There is also, however, a practical gap. We have 2020 in mind – but what should we do now? This is why we’re launching our 2014 ministry aims. These are four aims that, we think, will help us move towards the 2020 vision.

Aims are our tools and therefore can change (unlike our church values, which express what it is to trust God). To reach the aims does not prove our faithfulness to God. To fail to reach them does not prove that we have failed God.

Aims are testable. We set them up to know what success will look like. To be testable is required so we can learn if they are good aims or poor ones.

Aims educate and inspire. Anyone should be able to look at them and say, ‘Now I know what ABC is doing.’ Or – most importantly – ‘Now I know where I will put my prayers and effort.’

If we reach these aims, praise God. It will only be by his Spirit. If we do, we will all still need to reflect and consider what was the reason – the aims are to help us learn our own ministry setting.

On the other hand, if we do not meet these aims, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Failure is a great teacher: perhaps the aim was right but our method was wrong; perhaps the aim was wrong and we need to shift focus.

Over to you, then. What do you think are the pro and con effects when churches have specific vision and aims?