The Pillar and Support of the Truth

Imagine Timothy–the Apostle Paul’s son in the faith, and young pastor of the church in Ephesus–walking through his city on an errand. Maybe he’s paying a tax, or getting supplies to a widow. Wherever he’s going, there’s a sight in Ephesus he couldn’t possibly overlook.

Dominating the view of the Ephesus is a massive temple—the Artemision. Otherwise known as the Temple or Artemis (or Diana), its massive size and architectural splendor made it one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. By Timothy’s time, the temple was over half a millennia old, having been built in 550 BC.

About this marvel Antipater of Sidon exclaimed:

“I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, “Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on [anything] so grand.”[1]

When Timothy walks past this building, he is looking at a structure that is 450 feet long, 225 feet wide (that’s a good bit larger than a football field), and 60 feet high—a towering six stories tall. Around this breath-taking edifice are at least 127 columns that supported the massive, ornately decorated roof. It was these sturdy columns that probably flashed into Timothy’s mind when he read his first letter from Paul, in which Paul wrote: “The church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).

How trite and insignificant Timothy might have felt the church to be, compared to the tradition of Artemis worship—which besides being both ancient, exciting, and culturally important, supported the lucrative idol-making industry. Yet Paul’s Spirit-inspired words were intended to diffuse any feelings of intimidation: it is the church—not the awe-inspiring Artemision— that is the household of the living God. And it is the church—not the ancient traditions of Artemis worship—that upholds the liberating truth of the gospel.

God could have built huge skyscrapers to support signs that told his truth. But he didn’t. God could have written the gospel in clouds in the sky. But he didn’t. God could have etched the news of salvation in Grand Canyons all across the face of the earth. But he didn’t. Instead he made people the pillars of his truth.

God wants us, as his church, to live out and proclaim his truth. What does that mean for us? Simply what Paul has been emphasizing throughout this letter—that if we grasp the gospel, we will live by the gospel.

[1] Antipater, Greek Anthology IX.58

Saving Group Discussions from Disaster

I have found that group discussions are one of the most difficult kinds of communication to do effectively.

The challenge of group discussion lies partially in the fact that the leader has less direct control over how it goes. If you are leading a group discussion, it’s not enough for you to know your material well: you must know how to invite others into the process of discovery. You also take greater risks, since the quality of the discussion often depends on how interactive and focused the group chooses to be. But if a group discussion is led well, it can also be one of the most effective ways of communication.

Here are some principles I’ve learned along the way that can save a group discussion from being a disaster.

1. Set a clear agenda and let the group know the parameters of the discussion.

People who are eager to learn will feel frustrated by a rambling discussion. Make sure you make it clear at the outset where you intend to go. Setting the parameters at the beginning can also be a preemptive action for potential conversation hijackers.

2. Ask the right discussion

This is such an important part of group discussions that it deserves several points.

  • Ask questions that lead toward the central thought you are communicating. For example, if you are teaching on prayer, you might ask, “Why is it so easy for us to neglect prayer?”
  • Don’t make your group guess what you’re trying to communicate. This is an easy mistake to make. For example, if you are trying to communicate that our model prayer should be the Lord’s prayer, don’t ask, “What should our model prayer be?” If someone says anything different than the Lord’s prayer, you’ll end up having to say something like, “Nice try, but you’re wrong.” Questions like this come across as, “I’m asking this question to see how many wrong answers you bozos could come up with. Now here’s the real answer.”
  • Ask specific, but open-ended questions. For example, the question, “How important is prayer to you?” is open-ended, but not specific enough. The question, “Does the threat of losing something valuable make you desperate to pray? is specific, but not open-ended. The question, “What kinds of circumstances do we tend to feel the most desperate to pray?” is both specific and open-ended.
  • Give people time to think about the questions. Since your group is hearing your question for the first time, they need a little time to mull it over. To keep from having dead spaces in the discussion, ask a question, and then talk about the question while giving the group time to come up with answers.

3. If a person says something completely wrong, affirm them without affirming their wrong answer.

Of course you try to avoid questions that might yield answers that contradict your central thought. But inevitably someone is going to offer an idea that is totally wrong. You don’t want to say, “That’s right!” to such a statement. Not only is that dishonest, but you will lose credibility with those who know that answer is wrong. At the same time, you don’t want to embarrass the person who gave the wrong answer. You might get away with a good-natured, “Nope!” But if the person is sensitive, that might embarrass them.

The key to navigating this potentially awkward situation is to think how the wrong answer seems reasonable and explore that path a bit. That way you can communicate that, while it might be reasonable to think such-and-such, given more information the opposite is actually true. Of course, you can’t control whether someone feels hurt or embarrassed. But you can at least do your part to show them respect.

4. Use humor to lighten tense moments and to help people feel comfortable enough to talk.

Tactful humor or even just small talk about yourself can ease the atmosphere in the room. You don’t have to be clever or a comedian to make people feel laugh and feel comfortable, but make sure that any deprecating humor is directed only toward yourself.

5. Regardless of how the discussion went, know ahead of time what ideas you want the group to take away from the meeting.

Don’t end the meeting by saying, “Well, that was an interesting discussion.” The discussion might have brought to light some points you hadn’t thought of, but make sure that you reiterate the central point you were trying to communicate. Ideally, the discussion will have amplified, illustrated, and driven that point home even further.

How Is My Preaching? [Part 2]: Platform Mechanics and the Invitation

Man In Prayer Christian Stock Photo“Did you not see that a gentleman came forward at the invitation?” Sitting in a Chinese buffet, my friend David and I were in the middle of a painful sermon evaluation session. The way he asked that question gave me the suspicion that there was no good answer. I broke some clumps of sticky rice with my chopsticks. Then I replied, “I did notice. But I guess it didn’t impact the way I handled the invitation.”

This was not the time to defend myself, for as David rehearsed the scene to me, it became painfully clear that I had botched the close of the service. I asked the congregation to stand, and the song leader handed me a note with a song number on it, which I announced to the congregation. But as the instruments began playing, I slouched awkwardly away from the pulpit and shielded my face with the blue hymnal.

David had a category for my cowardly retreat from the pulpit: platform mechanics. Given his background in public speaking, he observed that I backed down as the leader when I scuttled away from the pulpit during the invitation (perhaps a more precise designation for this category would be presenting and performing). I remember that I was wearing a navy blue suit, white shirt, and lavender tie that Sunday morning. But in retrospect, I might as well have been wearing an oversized T-shirt that said in giant letters, “I JUST PREACHED A SERMON, BUT I CAN’T DO THIS INVITATION THING.”

The reason I botched the invitation was clear. I had spent several hours preparing the content of my message, but the minutes I had spent preparing for the invitation and close of the service amounted to exactly zero. When it came time to close the service, I was at a loss. So I did the only natural thing: I retreated. David pointed out that I didn’t even close in prayer! We could certainly chalk this up to lack of experience. But I think it’s more serious than just a rookie mistake. I think it points to a failure to connect the preaching event with the church’s overall worship.

Do Invitations Matter?

Depending on your background, the invitation may seem foreign or even distasteful. Perhaps the invitation reminds you of a preacher berating his audience until a satisfactory number of congregants “walk the aisle.” Or perhaps it reminds you of churchgoers trudging to the stairs of the platform Sunday after Sunday, out of habit rather than out of a genuine response to the preaching. Doubtless, the invitation has suffered abuse, whether it be from preachers who use it as a success metric, or whether it be from the strange and misleading terminology associated with it, such as “the altar call.” I won’t take the time here to defend the use of the invitation. May it be sufficient to point out that any true preaching demands a response, otherwise it is not true preaching. Of course we would be foolish to restrict the meaning of “response to preaching” to the few actions associated with the tradition invitation (kneeling, walking an aisle, etc). But it would be equally foolish to reject the invitation completely. One need not slavishly follow tradition to effectively use this tender time of reflection and response to God’s word.

For our purposes, we will define the invitation as the audience’s opportunity, while still gathered,  to respond directly to the message preached. In many cases, the message calls believers to take action that goes beyond the bounds of the service itself (for example, honesty in the workplace). In those cases, the invitation can serve to reinforce the commitment to that action through personal prayer and meditation. In other cases, the message is a call to something that can be done within that meeting–such as repenting of a particular sin or trusting in Christ as Savior. In either case, it is usually the preacher who carefully facilitates this opportunity in a way that is shaped by the sermon, appropriate to the setting, and sensitive to the Holy Spirit.

Essential Components of an Effective Invitation

So how should you call your audience to respond at the close of the service? There is precious little written on conducting invitations. But here are what I understand to be the essential components of the invitation. I trust that a solid grasp of these components will allow me to be more effective, intentional, and even creative in connecting the audience’s response with the preaching event.

  1. The invitation should be shaped by the sermon’s application. Planning the invitation in such a way that it corresponds to the main thrust of application makes the invitation intentional rather than a matter of routine. For example, if the sermon is taken from Ephesians 1, the best invitation might be to call believers to joyfully sing the Doxology. If the sermon is taken from 2 Corinthians 7:1 (“cleanse yourselves from every defilement of the flesh”), an appropriate invitation might be to have people write out the defiling sins that come to their mind, and then prayerfully commit to taking whatever action necessary to rid themselves of those sins.
  2. The invitation should be appropriate to the setting and time constraints. Only so much can be put into action within the context of a church gathering. Often invitations will be a call for people to apply in the future what the passage teaches. Especially in the case of a call to salvation, the preacher should have counselors prepared to deal personally with unbelievers who respond.
  3. The invitation should be clear. First, the preacher should be clear about what is going on. He can say something like, “Now we have an opportunity to respond to what God has showed us from this passage.” Even if people are accustomed to the time of invitation, it never hurts to clarify its purpose in terms of responseobedience, or worship. Second, the preacher should be clear about who is being called to action. Is he addressing believers, or unbelievers? Those whose actions have been in direct conflict with the word of God, or also those who have already been obedient? Third, the preacher should be clear about what people are being asked to do. If people should have their heads bowed, no one should be wondering if he is the only one bowing his head. If people are invited to come to the front for further counseling, no one should be wondering whether or not that would be an appropriate action. Tenderness does not thrive in the soil of confusion. The preacher must be absolutely clear when giving the invitation.
  4. The invitation should be confident and urgent. Besides being clear, the preacher must also reflect his conviction that God’s word is truly powerful. He has wielded the Living Sword, and he should be confident that it will pierce even the most adamant heart. Yet he understands that as the human messenger, he must plead, “Be reconciled to God!” He is urgent because eternal matters are at stake. He is confident because he believes in the power of God’s word. The way he conducts this invitation should reflect this mixture of urgency and confidence.
  5. The invitation should be conducted in a pastorally sensitive manner. Since the invitation is in a sense the consummation of the preaching service, it is a tender time. People’s hearts have been laid bare, their motives have been exposed, and their consciences have been stirred. As their pastor, the preacher should be sensitive to people’s humble vulnerability at this time. He should be careful to not embarrass anyone or dampen the tenderness with an abrupt transition.

I am puzzled by the fact that the invitation tends to be neglected in literature on preaching. Perhaps this is because we are uncertain which discipline should claim it—homiletics, pastoral theology, or a theology of church worship. Regardless, if the preacher is responsible for closing the service, he must plan the invitation. He must not only lead his listeners from the introduction to the conclusion of his sermon, but also from the conclusion to the time they leave their seats.

How Is My Preaching? [Part 1] Why Preachers Need Feedback

Sermon Christian Stock Image

Feedback Can Be Scary!

I was nervous. I had asked a friend, David Pinkley, to give me honest feedback about my preaching. On Sunday I preached in our church’s morning service, and the following Thursday David and I were sitting in a greasy Chinese buffet. I couldn’t tell whether my loss of appetite was due to the chunks of unidentifiable meat floating in old duck sauce on my plate, or because I could see David’s instruments of torture across the table–a well-marked legal pad, and a bulletin from Sunday crammed front and back with notes about my sermon.

David is one of the most articulate people I know. As a professional resume writer and career sage, he is a student of human personality and the communication process. From his stories of his past clients, I knew that he could apply his penetrating insight with surgical precision. When David started to shuffle through the notes in his legal pad, I wondered whether I should have asked him for an anesthetic before he began cutting.

Don’t Believe Everything You Hear About Your Preaching

This isn’t the sort of feedback I was used to. I, and every young preacher, has heard the the fawning comments from admiring congregants: “That was the best sermon I’ve ever heard!” “You are going to be a great preacher!” With five years of preaching experience, I have learned to hear these comments more as an expression of their love for the Bible and preaching, than as an evaluation of my ability to communicate the Word of God. If I hear these statements as affirmations of me and my preaching, I am in danger of being deceived into thinking that I am a gifted preacher when I am truly not. Then I will be less likely to put effort into improving my preaching.

The danger of self-deception and complacency can be avoided by soliciting honest feedback. This feedback must come from people who meet three qualifications. First, they must be spiritually-minded. Second, they must understand good communication. Third, they must be motivated by seeing the preacher succeed.

Is It OK to Evaluate Preaching?

This idea of sermon evaluation might raise a couple objections. First, if preaching is speaking God’s word, is it even legitimate to evaluate it? In answer, it is important to understand that we are not evaluating God’s word, but rather how effectively the human preacher is communicating it. Also, I would contend that since preaching is indeed speaking God’s word, it deserves being communicated in the best possible way. Preachers are human. The Word is divine. Lack of clarity, distracting habits, failing to make appropriate application–all these can stand in the way of God’s word being heard as it deserves.

A second objection might be this: won’t asking someone to evaluate your preaching rob them of the challenge they need from God’s word? That is a real possibility. You can avoid this danger by taking a couple precautions. First, make sure you ask a spiritually-minded person. They will be able to distinguish between the message from God’s word that they need to obey and how effectively you communicated that message. Second, evaluation doesn’t need to happen all the time, nor always by the same person.

My point is this: any preacher who hopes to improve his preaching should get honest feedback from spiritually-minded supporters who understand good communication. In the next post, I plan to expand on an area David pointed out to me–platform mechanics. I never learned this in any class on preaching, and my mistake in this area greatly weakened the response to the message. I will also suggest (perhaps in a third post) how to get the best feedback, and explain why your wife may not be the best choice as your preaching critic.

Digesting “Theological Vision” in Keller’s Book, Center Church

Timothy Keller

Center Church, Timothy Keller’s recently published book, deals with a topic that is close to my heart. I love the church of Christ, and I am constantly interested in what the church should be and do. Because there is much to digest in Center Church, I have been working through it slowly.

Keller’s first chapter introduces the concept of theological vision, which Keller believes has been ignored or misunderstood in many books about the church. In this respect, Keller has been heavily influenced by Richard Lints (professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and author of Fabric of Theology). According to Lints, “the modern theological vision must seek to bring the entire counsel of God into the world of its time in order that its time might be transformed.” Theological vision, explains Keller, is the “middleware” between doctrine and methodologies (17). He defines theological vision as “a faithful restatement of the gospel with rich implications for life, ministry, and mission in a type of culture at a moment in history” (19).

While I understand completely Keller’s intent, I couldn’t help but squirm a bit at the way he put it here, specifically the words “restatement of the gospel.” Perhaps it would be less confusing to say that theological vision is a setting forth of the gospel’s implications for life, ministry, and mission in a type of culture at a moment in history.

That clarification aside, I like what Keller is doing here. He is neither writing another book on ecclesiology, nor advocating a set of methods that has worked for Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Rather, what he suggests might mean even more work for pastors and church leaders. To develop theological vision for his own ministry, a pastor must reflect deeply and decisively on the gospel, his city’s culture, and his own theological tradition (denomination or movement). No church growth guru can do this work for him.

As I continue to read this book, I looking forward to Keller’s answers to some of these questions that begin to surface in my mind:

  1. Is it practical to expect that the average pastor with college or seminary level training will have the time and expertise to study (in addition to theology) his city’s culture, and formulate a theological vision for ministry that is both accurate and comprehensive enough to drive his methods?
  2. How can a pastor be a student of his culture?
  3. What is the right approach to “Christ and the culture?”
  4. Where does Keller find Scriptural justification for his emphasis on understanding the culture?