When someone says to me, “Chuck . . . I got a lot out of the message,” I usually try to respond in a way that allows him or her to be more specific.
After I say, “Thank you, I’m glad it was helpful,” I’ll usually ask, “Did it make sense?”
“How did it make sense?” I’ll probe. It’s very interesting to hear people say, “Well, in this way . . .” I find that their response often connects just as I had intended. And that’s a good feeling.
But it’s a terrible feeling when they tell you something quite the opposite of what you intended.
If I have one strength in my teaching it would have to be the application of Scripture. For the life of me, I don’t know why that’s true. It might just be a habit of my life that I can’t let the text rest until it’s been applied. But I appreciate others telling me that it’s one of my strengths. I think it can be yours, too.
(Photo: By William Hoiles from Basking Ridge, NJ, USA. Old books Uploaded by guillom. CC-BY-2.0
, via Wikimedia Commons)
I want to get very practical in this post. Let me share with you in three short lists of what I have found to be helpful in the process of drawing application from the Bible.
You can use them this week.
I am a glutton for illustrations. I have boxes of illustrations that I save and keep on file (and occasionally, lose). They are priceless to my preaching.
A good illustration is worth every minute it takes from your sermon. I didn’t always think so. I used to think an illustration was a waste of time. I no longer believe that. The men and women who have deeply ministered to me are people who have been able to take a story and help me see its relevance in light of biblical truth.
If I make one mistake more often than any other as a preacher, it is assuming more than I should about my congregation. I assume, first of all, that people want to know what the Bible says.
(Photo: By James Steakley. Own work. CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
- I assume they know I have their best interest at heart.
- I assume they understand the context.
- I assume they have a theological frame of reference.
And having begun on those shaky assumptions, I begin building a great big sermon when the foundation has not been laid.
I’ve discovered it’s better to keep the message simple (but not simplistic), to take it a little slower and to establish a good, firm foundation. Then I can build my case.
I’ll never forget when I was asked to speak to an audience who didn’t have a lot of biblical knowledge.
I decided to start simple.
Some of us who are evangelicals seem to think that because we’re teaching the Bible we can bore people with it. And that there’s something wrong with the audience if they go to sleep on us. I know a great Hebrew term for that line of thinking: Hogwash!
A good communicator is interesting. Look at how Solomon put it: “The Preacher sought to find delightful words and to write words of truth correctly” (Ecclesiastes 12:10). Did you notice, “delightful words”? The preacher sought to find that which would bring emotional delight. How about that! I take that to mean he’s looking for clarity as well as an interesting, even captivating use of terms.
If sweat were blood, my study would be red. So would yours. As pastors, part of what helps us become good communicators is paying the personal price for being well-prepared. That takes hard work.
“The Preacher,” Solomon tells us, “also taught the people knowledge”—and this occurred by “pondering, searching out, and arranging” his thoughts (Ecclesiastes 12:9). These verbs are in the intensive stem in the Hebrew. In other words, in becoming well-prepared, you have to sacrifice. The cost is high! Both in time . . . and in tools.
I don’t mind being called a preacher. One of my lifetime goals has been to be a good preacher. That takes hard work. You know that. Good communication is never automatic. Sometimes you may think you’re coming through clearly only to be surprised when a member of the congregation, or even your wife, without your asking, shares with you that your message didn’t come through. We’ve all been there!
I see it every night on the news. The politics of backslapping and handshaking and making sure “so-and-so” isn’t turned off—it’s maddening! (We call it “smoke-blowing” here in Texas.) It’s become a political race where the objective is favorable public opinion. Period.
If we’re not careful, we can let politics work its way into our churches. And even worse, into our pulpits. In fact, the pastorate is a breeding ground for this sort of thing—maybe more than most professions.
I love the way the apostle Paul keeps our motives clean and our focus sharp:
Just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts. For we never came with flattering speech, as you know. (1 Thessalonians 2:4–5)
People-pleasing is a very tempting allurement, especially for people in ministry, because most of what we do gets done through people. When needing volunteer positions filled—whether in the nursery, for a Sunday school class, among the ushers, or even in our music ministry—it’s easy to massage our words and say more than we mean . . . or say something other than what we mean. (That’s called a lie.) The pastor must resist the temptation to flatter. We must refuse to play both sides against the middle. Don’t go there. Why? Because once you start, it’s hard to stop.
When a pastor is a people-pleaser, he sits on the fence so as not to offend anyone. He remains neutral when he should NOT be playing it safe. He tells people what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear. That’s not pastoring . . . that’s politics.
Look at the apostle’s words one more time. I find myself both challenged and refreshed by Paul’s transparency: “We speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts.”
Have you ever felt God wasn’t using your ministry? Ever felt forgotten in the shadows? I want to dispense a fresh supply of hope. To help accomplish that, let me suggest four principles.
Are you an aspiring Superman?
I’m not talking about pulling on a pair of blue tights and a red cape and putting a fancy “S” on your chest. I’m talking about an attitude: “I am self-sufficient,” “I need no one else,” or “I will show no weakness or admit any inadequacy.” These betray the presence of the Superman Syndrome—that particular peril for pastors who go it alone.
Funny thing is, I’ve rarely seen anyone lose ground by admitting inadequacy or weakness. The best professors I ever had said, “I don’t know, Chuck, but when we come back together I’ll try to have that answer for you.” I deeply respect that attitude in a person. Kids acknowledge weakness all the time and never feel as if they’ve lost face.
As pastors, we set ourselves up for letting people down when we pose as Superman. I remember a young believer in our church who gushed, “I don’t know of anybody I admire as much as I do you.”
“Stop right there,” I interrupted. “I appreciate your admiration, but always remember: When it comes to one another on this earth, never put anyone on a pedestal.”
“I never thought about that before,” she replied.
“Only one person deserves to be on a pedestal, and He’ll never fall off. That’s Jesus. You can respect me,” I continued, “but please don’t put me in that place where I’m sure to let you down.”
By the way . . . have you heard what the mother ape said to her baby ape? “Watch out about climbing on those high poles. The higher you get, the more they’re gonna see your rump.” Remember, when you’re up high, you’re a big target. You’re on display. So it’s essential to say, “I can’t handle this myself.” Or, “I need you guys right now.” Didn’t Jesus do this at Gethsemane?
As 2 Corinthians 2:16 asks, “Who is adequate for these things?” Obviously, the appropriate attitude is to embrace this fact: We are not self-sufficient. We need other people. It’s wise for us to ask for help. We should never leave the impression that we don a cape and tights.
Let’s get practical. Ask for help! Hardly a day passes that I don’t ask someone to assist me in doing something. Also, make sure that when someone helps with a project, that person gets the credit. If a guy comes up with a great idea, and the whole church applauds it, let the people know it was his idea. Why leave any other impression?
Admit weaknesses and failures. Acknowledge your own fallibility. Don’t buy in to the Superman Syndrome. You can’t carry the weight of the whole world on your shoulders. Someone else already has that distinction.