How to get better sermons

Sometimes pastors take themselves too seriously.  Sometimes pastors can have a big ego.  Sometimes pastors need bringing down a peg or too.  Sometimes pastors seem to think we should hang on their every word, as if we’re blessed to have them open God’s word to us Sunday by Sunday.

I’m pretty sure those pastors are out there but I wonder how many of them there are because I don’t know many (any?) like that.  Most are hardworking people who love Jesus and care for the disciples Jesus has given them to care for.  They don’t do it perfectly; they know that, in fact they are very aware that – Sunday’s sermon never really took off.  It just trundled about, taxiing on the runway.  But they studied and read and prepared and edited and then edited some more, they prayed – though looking back now perhaps a bit more prayer (OK if we’re honest a lot more prayer would have helped).   And they offered their best. And they’ll do it all again this week, or next if they’re part of a team.

They try their best to pastor well but are very aware of their weaknesses.  They know that you can hear better sermons online.  They know that they are at best average at most things and often minister out of their weaknesses rather than their strengths.  They know how generously people give so they can be set aside to do what they do. They don’t take it for granted, and they don’t do it for the money or the kudos.

The vast majority of pastors don’t need putting in their place or cutting down to size.  So how do we help the vast majority of pastors? How do we get better sermons?

Be active not passive.  How do you encourage your pastor?  Be active in listening to the bible taught in your church – engage with it – yes it will take some effort, yes it means you don’t unplug and mentally disconnect and put on your facial screen saver – you know the one; slightly gormless and with the glazed eyes (I know you think this isn’t what it is, you think you look attentive – let me tell you you don’t!).  Actively listen, follow the Bible passage yes, even the cross references rustle those pages, and if you dare (go on I dare you) actually make eye contact with him as he preaches.  Actively pray before you go to church, or on the way to church in time with the kids moaning – Jesus teach me, Jesus show me more of who you are, Jesus please show me more of your love for me, Jesus are we nearly there yet (Oh sorry that was the kids).

Be active in your application of the passage afterwards.  After the service ask someone how they are going to apply that to their week?  Or ask for help in thinking through how you would apply it?  And don’t do what we so often do which is avoid doing that by doing theological naval gazing – Oh I wonder if the Greek word really has another meaning?  – or by applying it to others, or to the standard default evangelical applications – read your Bible, pray more, go to church, give (if it’s near budget year end).  Stop doing those and instead ask what does it actually look like for you to put this into practice, not as an individual, our default, but as a disciple, a husband, dad, mum, wife, grandma, granddad, aunt or uncle, colleague, boss, neighbour, church member, and ambassador for Christ in the community?

And then, and here’s the radical bit, don’t allow that to just be hot air, to be ‘just talk’.  Actually follow through.  Do it.  Live out what has been taught.  And then some weeks later drop a note to your pastor about what the fruits of his sermon were, they’ll still be a work in progress, it’ll be faltering, it’ll be two steps forward and maybe one, two, or maybe even three, back.  But I guarantee it’ll spur your pastor on to keep teaching, keep praying, keep preparing because he can see fruit not a barren wasteland. And ultimately that encouragement and your own active engaging in the process, prayer, and application will mean you get better sermons, more fruit from listening.

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So why stay?

So having said all that I said in the last post about things that can make me want to give up and move away, why stay?

In part it’s gospel need. Doncaster has achieved a dubious privilege this last year. It not only made the top 10 worst places to live in the UK, but for the first time ever featured on the top 10 most dangerous places to live in the UK in terms of crime, murder, drugs etc… That fuels a conviction in me that not many people will come to Doncaster, that’s especially true in Hayfield. The Christian cavalry is not coming over the hill. And so we need to stay because the people around about us need the gospel.

And in our area long term relationships matter. 45% of 18 year olds don’t head off to Uni, and those that don’t live in areas like ours and because I’ve been here 15 years now there are those who remember me from assemblies in Primary School 15 years ago who are now parents of kids in nursery, or who I chat to in the community as I’m out and about. Those long term relationships are key in an area like ours. That is a mission field for us, there is no CU or UCCF working with those young adults our their families and many will not move out not this area but we have long term relationships with them and there are gospel opportunities that leads to. The images of farming in the gospels are so true, it takes many years to plough, till, sow and reap. This area needs long term commitment and relationships..

One of the other things that keeps us going is the God given partnerships and friendships. We have friends who have taken our ministry to heart, who pray regularly for us, who give to Grace Church to help support us. One friend very practically helps us by popping up every so often to help us with our PA equipment, installing things, advising us, listening and tweaking things and occasionally watching our livestream and giving advice and feedback on how we improve it. For a small church with limited technical expertise that is a real God send.

We have church partnerships. BEC pays a large chunk of my salary and have done for years. Other churches have supported us more sporadically financially but regularly in prayer partnerships. And there are organisations like Medhurst Ministries who facilitate training and a supportive network of workers in similar areas to our own. All of those things help to avoid any feelings of isolation in serving here. Partnerships in the gospel are key.

Internally what makes us stay? It is seeing people come to faith. It is seeing people who have come to faith grow in their love for Jesus as they grasp the height, depth, width and breadth of Jesus love for them. It is seeing people wrestling to fight sin, sin to self and carry their cross as they follow Jesus. It is a church that genuinely loves one another and serves one another even in the chaos of life and across the divides. It is remembering that image from Paul of the race being run, of people reaching the finishing line and being welcomed by their Saviour into their Father’s presence. It is the conviction that the only power that can change the world one life at a time as it wipes away sin and shame and reconciles people to God and one another is the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and he has given that power to us – weak clay pots that we are – and those around us need Jesus more than they need anything else.

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I give up

I was asked some great questions this week as part of something I was doing. They were the kind of questions that I found were helpful reflectively. So I’m going to do some blog posts to answer them more fully and help me reflect on them a bit more.

Have we ever felt like moving away? Have we ever felt like giving up?

Ministry is hard. Our ministry hasn’t been harder than anyone elses. Every ministry has its different challenges and hardships. But there have been times when I have found myself toying with the idea of serving somewhere else. I’ve even, at one point, drafted my resignation letter and saved it on my laptop not because I was seriously contemplating it but because I need a way to express my frustrations and have something to pray through.

So what can make me feel like giving up? Sometimes that’s been because of hardship. The area where we are was described by someone as the ‘godless hole’ of his parish, it still largely remains so, ministry here is hard, the soil feels rock hard and baked in. Yes, we’ve seen people com to faith but only a handful. And some who’ve been keen to explore who Jesus is and we’ve begun to see changed have then been evicted from their housing or relocated to the other end of Doncaster, and that’s been heartbreaking. Others have come so far, seemingly engaging and attracted to Jesus, but then turn back or find themselves losing interest amidst the chaos of ordinary life.

There have been times when there have been difficult pastoral situations that have left me feeling like throwing in the towel, sometimes because of my own failures in those situations, and sometime because of the refusal to repent of others. Sometimes it has just been because of the sheer broken heartedness of seeing others walk away from the faith, or a little less painfully leave for a bigger and better church because we don’t have … (fill in the gap).

Sometimes it’s been because of the discouragement of our children. Being in small church is hard. There aren’t loads of other young people and when other families move away and friends relocate because their parents job changes that is tough. It’s tough on our children when those friends come back to visit and talk about their new church with an all singing all dancing youth group. It can be tough and discouraging with students, some of our young people go away to University and we know many won’t come back and our area doesn’t have that through flow of students some of whom may stay and be the next generation of leaders. (Student leaders/pastors bear that in mind when you write to small churches about any potential students they may be sending to you university city or town). That’s some of the push factors that can leave you feeling like what’s the point?.

Sometimes it’s the wider culture in Christianity that makes us think about moving. People, well meaningly but unhelpfully, suggesting that gifts are wasted in a small church, that somehow where we are isn’t strategic, or influential, or simply that it’s time we worked our way up to a bigger church after all just think of the people you can influence and send to areas of need (The trickle down theory is a stupid theory that doesn’t work and needs taking out the back of the shed and putting down once and for all!). It can be the frustration of so many needs but so few leaders. Or the frustrations of finance, we are very fortunate in the partnership we have with our sending church, but it is still discouraging seeing a deficit month after month, the spectre of bi-vocational ministry always potentially in the future does that mean we’ve failed in planting? After all that’s what the way we do planting suggests – here have 3 years of finance suggests what? That 3 years is enough to grow a church and sustain ministry – that may be true in some areas but not others. Or it can be the seeming hard heartedness of other larger churches to your needs, they take on their 5th worker whilst you labour on alone, or the para-church leader who encourages one of your elders to move to a bigger church to expand his influence. Or the way we view success in terms of raw numbers or budgets or other metrics. All those things are pull or push factors that come from the evangelical culture.

As you can see there are personal and local and national and impersonal factors that can make you think about moving away, giving up. Let me say I’m not discouraged, I’m not thinking of giving up. In the next couple of posts I’ll share something of why, the encouragements and the convictions. But I do think we as an evangelical culture need to reflect on this, so often our culture plays its part in discouraging small churches, planting in harder areas, and perseverance in the slog in favour of the greener, larger and more strategic.