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.
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.
I had the privilege of being mentored by a man who is now gone. I became one of the first interns on the staff with Ray Stedman at Peninsula Bible Church. And I saw in Ray something I had not seen modeled in many pastors . . . an authentic life.
Ray was just who he was. I saw it work.
- I saw a man who was not defensive, who could laugh at himself, who had fun in life and yet was as good a thinker on his feet in question/answer sessions as I’d ever seen.
- I saw a man who could love the homosexual and at the same time do an excellent biblical presentation on the sin of homosexuality.
- I saw a man who had a room in his life for a wayward child.
- I saw a man who hardly traveled alone, no matter where he went, and always had someone younger with him.
One of the secrets of building character in the lives of others is taking time for those younger than you. Those who are longing for the qualities and the character that have made you who you are. Ray did this for me.
No matter how significant you may become, no matter how well known your name, no matter how important your work, no matter your salary, no matter what your reputation may be, you must allow yourself to become who you are.
I’m not a formula guy, but this simple little formula has worked for me throughout my adult life: Know who you are, accept who you are, be who you are.
The greatest gift you can give to your congregation, to your family, to whomever—as the Lord continues to work in your life—is who you are. I have a good friend who says it this way, “We are not who we are, we are not even who we think we are. We are who we think other people think we are.” (Read that again.) And if you’re in that world no wonder you have such struggles with character!
Character will not emerge from a phony life, which is all the more reason to go back to that word that so characterized Ray’s life: authentic.
Know who you are, accept who you are, be who you are. That’s really it in a nutshell.
I want to ask you four questions that only you can answer:
- Do you give the people in your congregation the freedom to be who they are?
- Do you let others go, or do you smother them and control them?
- Are you cultivating spontaneous, creative, celebrants—or fearful captives?
- Do you encourage, build up, and affirm those to whom you minister?
These four questions really boil down to one:
Are you one who models and ministers grace?
It’s time to take off the gloves, rip off the masks, knock off the rationalizations, and face the truth head-on.
Is the ministry you’re leading the result of your own flesh, energized by your own gifts and strengths? Are you relying on your charisma to pull it off? Do you often have a hidden agenda?
How about your motive? With a captive audience hanging on to your words and following your ministry (and your Tweets) with unquestioned loyalty, do you exploit them . . . do you use your power for your own purposes? Is the enhancement of your image of major importance to you, or can you honestly say that your work is directed and empowered by the Spirit of God?
Again, I ask you:
Are you one who models and ministers grace?
Here is the apostle Paul’s version of the Christmas story:
But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. (Galatians 4:4–5)
Without realizing it, mighty Augustus was only an errand boy for the commencement of “the fullness of time.” He was a pawn in the hand of God . . . a mere piece of lint on the pages of prophecy. While Rome was busy making history, God arrived. He pitched His fleshly tent in silence on straw . . . in a stable . . . under a star. The world didn’t even notice. Reeling from the wake of Alexander the Great . . . Herod the Great . . . and Augustus the Great, the world overlooked Jesus the baby.
It still does.
As they were in Jesus’s day, so our times are desperate. Moreover, they often are a distraction from the bigger picture. Just as the political, economical, and spiritual crises of the first century set the stage for the “fullness of time” to occur . . . so today, in our own savage times, our God is weaving His sovereign tapestry to accomplish His divine will. Times are hard, indeed—but they never surprise God. He is still sovereign. He is still on the throne. As the psalmist reminds us: “Our God is in the heavens; / He does whatever He pleases” (Psalm 115:3).
In my 50 years of ministry, I have never been more committed than I am today to pointing our generation to the Word of God. It remains the single most accurate source of strength and divine direction during these difficult days. I urge you as pastors and leaders in ministry to recommit yourselves to consistent exposition combined with practical teaching from the Scriptures. With the same urgency, I exhort you—wherever God has placed you—to live out the truth of God’s Word before your family and neighbors through evangelism, Bible study, and memorization of God’s Word.
Feeling anxious about these difficult days? I understand, and Jesus does too. Times were no different when Jesus was born. Because so many lives have been turned upside down this year for one reason or another, I encourage you to do more than preach it again this year. I also urge you to reflect—just as Mary did—on what God is doing in your life. Christmas is a good time to ask ourselves this question: Will I focus on Jesus as the center of my life and cling to Him regardless of the circumstances I face? That’s not for you to preach. That’s for you to ponder.
Political corruption . . . religious compromise . . . economic crises—these will always be front-page news. But we must remember that our God is on the throne. He promises to use our desperate times to accomplish His bigger and better purposes in our world . . . and in our lives.