Reflections on microwaving old sermon notes

For Semester 1 we are preaching through the second half of John’s gospel. I had preached through this section previously when the pastor of the church plant Crossroads Presbyterian Church back in 2003. We did two series back to back ‘Conversations in the Departure Lounge (John 13–17) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (John 18–21)… and so I thought I’d dig the wretched handwritten scribbles out of the garage to see what they’re like.

I’d previously used some stuff from 2005, and that’s still a long time ago when I was very young. And there was a lot of content that I could use there, too.

This sparked off a whole string of thoughts about learning, training, preaching, Scripture and much else. I thought I’d share.

1 It’s ok to re-use sermon material. Re-using, I think, has a bit of a bad name in the tradition of UK/Australian reformed evangelical Christianity. There’s an assumption that it’s healthy and normal for a pastor to be constantly composing new sermon material. There’s lots that’s good about that: it keeps you working hard at the text, questioning your past exegetical assumptions, preparing a message for the people you are ministering to today. By contrast it can be quite disappointing when someone comes and just delivers their Ikea flat-pack sermon to a conference or church, that does’t really connect especially well.

However, a general principle is not the same as a rule. A friend of mine who has moved from working in pentecostal churches to reformed evangelical churches observed how amazing the difference is in the number of work hours reformed evangelical pastors spend on Bible teaching preparation. On the one hand that is to our credit and expresses our convictions. On the other hand, we need to be careful we don’t baptise quite inefficient work practices.

It actually makes sense to re-use sermon material. If it was true, it is still true. Time can be spent perhaps on reviewing some theological/exegetical conclusions and perhaps adjusting application and illustration. But much time can be won back to devote to other duties in training, evangelism, leadership, personal care and so on, if that time is not spent writing new sermons from scratch 45 weeks out of the year.

In fact, our sermons might actually be better if we revise and enrich existing material.

2 It’s possible for young leaders to be effective preachers

The older you get, the easier it is to become dismissive of young men and women. You see the gaps in their knowledge, wisdom, skill, maturity, holiness even… and you can raise the bar of age and experience slowly higher and higher. But while I realise there were many foolish and clumsy and wrong things I did in my ministry — including my preaching ministry — there was a lot I did well at a young age… at the age of some my Christian union graduates and MTS apprentices.

This is a real 1Timothy 4:12 moment: the young leader can, through their godliness and truth-telling commend themselves. And it’s a reminder to me as a leader and a trainer and a network-influencer: to keep making space to lift up young leaders.

Our student president recently preached a sermon on Esther 6–8 and it was thoughtful and rich and more sophisticated at reflecting on the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility than much of the chatter around ministry outcomes that I hear/read in theologically trained circles 😛

3. Some of the building blocks of the gift of preaching are evident early on

Especially in our egalitarian Australian context, we like to thing that anyone has what it takes to do anything. We fancy that we can take any godly, faithful, zealous Christian and make them a really good preacher. But whereas learning something like ‘the Chappo model’ might give, as John Chapman promised, ‘Better than average results’, it doesn’t anyone into a great preacher.

We can’t blame the theological colleges or the MTS trainer or something else we imagine is to blame for the ordinariness of some preaching. There is an element in preaching, as in sport, art, personal mentoring, leadership, small business entrepreneurialism, pastoral sensitivity that can’t be taught. It can be developed, but there is an extent to which some people ‘have it’ and some don’t. And this is often (not always) evident fairly early on.

4. English speakers today are so rich in theological books to support the work of the preacher-teacher

I originally prepared these sermons with the help of Don Carson’s Pillar Commentary and Bruce Milne’s BST Commentary and a few others. The wealth of excellent English language theological material available is like an amazing exo-skeleton that the young pastor can put on to help them in their work.

This is not a substitute for growing in one’s skill in exegesis and knowledge of original languages… although a good commentary is really a written version of a good theological college lecture on these topics. It’s not as if it’s ‘more education’ if it’s done in a lecture room rather than in a book, necessarily.

Praise God for the wealth of resources we have! And give generously (or go willingly) to support making these tools available to other pastors, who speak other languages, around the world.

5. The difference between exegesis, composition, illustration, application and delivery

In re-using a sermon, I don’t preach it word for word. And that’s part of what saves it. A lazy reheat, a mentioned in point 1, above, can miss the mark. Its lukewarmness can lead to sermon salmonella: boring, confusing and frustrating your congregation. But a lazy reheat should not lead us to dismissing all reheats!

Much of the illustration, application and delivery should be  revised before re-using the content.  Or it could be be adjusted on the spot (I’m pretty comfortable doing that anyway, there are very few illustrations I write into my sermon notes in advance).

For behind these things are the ‘skeleton’ as Martyn Lloyd-Jones called it. The exegesis and structure that, if on the mark, provides the shape of the sermon, that can guide a fresh sermon. In re-suing, this is often what I do, preach at points,  almost extempore, putting flesh on the skeleton that I exhumed and revived.

6. Expository preaching in particular is more ageless and timeless 

I doubt my topical sermons from 2003 would be anywhere near as re-usable. But because I was converted and raised and trained on a diet of expository preaching, I have a backlog of expository sermon notes. And these age much better I think. The burden of the message is God’s word itself, and although that can be obscured by an immature teacher, it can also shine through in spite of that. Moreover, they also age better as the context around them shifts. Because the concern is not addressing a particular cultural or social trend or concern, but the message of the text of Scripture itself.

As the hymn goes:

God yet speaks by His own Spirit

Speaking to the hearts of men,

In the age-long Word expounding

God’s own message, now as then;

Through the rise and fall of nations

One sure faith yet standing fast,

God is King, His Word unchanging,

God the first, and God the last.

 

 

Reflections from attending a funeral

I attended a funeral of a non-Christian recently. It was a very moving and special and sad and wonderful experience.

A whole bunch of thoughts and feelings buzzed around:

  • This was not a religious funeral at all, but it was also not full of sloppy, thoughtless and sentimental platitudes. Both the funeral director and the family members and friends who spoke expressed genuine, tangible, true words of comfort, grief and wisdom. We do wrong if we totally dismiss the capacity of unbelievers to have anything good to say. While this is not the glorious hope and wisdom of the gospel… this kind of considered wisdom of the world still has a true wisdom to it.
  • There was a range of religious views expressed from a theistic view: ‘God made the miracle of the world and made us out of stardust 15 billion years old… And we will miss this miracle , who has now dies’; to more spiritualist: ‘he lives on in his children and in his influence upon us’; to the more atheistic ‘he valued his friends and family’. Speaking about religion is not dead in at least this Australia cultural context.
  • As best as I could see, the deceased was indeed a ‘good man’, from the perspective of this world. From a family and friendship circle of ‘good men’, who were raised by a ‘good man’. Many spoke of him as a ‘family man’ and a ‘dear friend’. It nice experience such a celebration of good male strength, ingenuity, tender care, commitment, passion, martial faithfulness, male friendship, emotional openness and fatherhood.
  • There is a kind of good deed and love which comes from simple presence. Being there. Laughing. Smiling. Chit chatting because what else can you say?
  • How more wonderful is it when all of these things can be scooped together along with a clear and confident proclamation of the gospel of Christ. The gospel doesn’t diminish and obscure most of this stuff — it elevates it and dignifies it even more.

Sermon application missteps, individualism, universalism and duty

Recently I heard a sermon that did some great work expounding the historical and theological context and meaning of an Old Testament passage, and then looking forward to how these themes are expressed in the context of the New Testament fulfilment. There was lots to like in both the content and the delivery.

But the application jarred at points. And as I tried to think through what was going wrong, I realised how clumsy sermon application, especially when applying things from the Old Testament to the New Testament, often is the result of an individualistic grid.

Often sermon applications want to say basically something along the lines of:

“This is what it must mean for every individual in the room right now.”

That’s right in the sense that ethics in God’s world are ultimately objective and universal. Every individual in the room must not murder, at all times. Every individual must repent and trust in God’s one and only son.

And it’s also right in the sense that the gospel message speaks to each of us as individuals. While recognising the communal nature of humanity, the Bible at the same time upholds human individuality, dignity and responsibility. Not only ‘the soul who sins is the one who dies’ but also each one of us who, ‘not by natural descent or human decision’, receives Jesus Christ becomes children born of God. We cannot preach the gospel in some generic, communal, ritualistic manner.

And yet.

Many sermon applications are not matters of absolutely constant moral duty or obligation — believe in Jesus, don’t murder. Many are about values, priorities — ‘seek first the kingdom of God’, ‘do good first of all the household of believers’. Many sermon applications have multiple expressions — ‘marriage is to be honoured by all’, ‘all of this is to be done for the strengthening of the church’. And many have a range of possible degrees of application — ‘be generous’, ‘pray’, ‘do good’.

But sermon applications get into trouble when the preacher identifies a particular application and lays it on the conscience of all their hearers in equal measure. With no attention to the range of individuals and contexts.

This clumsiness is often made worse when moving from the Old Testament to the New Testament. Passages which are primarily addressed to the leader of God’s people, or God’s people as a whole group get applied with a timeless, universal and personal application to each individual. Israelites were to come up to Jerusalem for the great festivals; but not absolutely every single individual Israelite was morally bound to do so every year. The community of returned exiles as a whole were to stop tending to their own property and comfort in order to build the house of the Lord; but not every single Israelite was pledged to a particular amount of construction work each day. And this duty looked different in the unique time period of the rebuilding of the physical temple than it looked in the days of Malachi, in the more routine and ongoing duties of temple worship.

Each individual Christian in a congregation is not somehow frozen in the timeless quirks of a particular moment in salvation history and shouldered with the burdens and responsibilities of the whole people of God. To apply the Scriptures as if they were is to burden their consciences where the Lord does not.

Often equally powerful, inspiring and convicting sermon applications can be preached that qualify a bit more carefully in ways such as:

  • what might this mean for you in particular? What does this mean for us as a whole group?
  • What should we all be committed to, value and pray for, even if how you express that commitment might vary?
  • How will this look for you in the coming week? How ought it look over a lifetime?
  • Some of you a peculiarly responsible for this: what are you bound to do?
  • And so on.

Really helpful checklist for employment reference check conversations

Thanks SO much to Manager Tools for giving a great framework for reference checking potential employees.

They recommend doing it only once you’re on the brink of offering the person the job. Both to save your time calling lots of references, and also the referee is more likely to talk if they don’t feel like they are prejudicing the person’s chances. It also helps you make up your own mind about someone first.

Then their suggested questions go something like:

“Hi, we are about to offer x a job with our ministry and are now conducting reference checks. They put you down as a referee. Are you happy to answer a few brief questions?”

  1. Can you confirm their dates of employment? (wait for them to give an answer, don’t read out what you have on the CV)
  2. Can you confirm their job title ? (wait for them to give an answer, don’t read out what you have on the CV)
  3. Can you comment on the accuracy of this job description they provided me with?

  4. They told me about project x — can you confirm their involvement? What was the outcome of this project?

  5. What was their best contribution while working with you?

  6. What areas for improvement did they have?

  7. [I’ve added for Christian references] Do you have any areas of theological concern or lack of clarity?

  8. [I’ve added for Christian references] Do you have any questions of moral concern?

  9. We are considering them for x role. How would you assess their suitability?

  10. Would you have any concerns about employing them again, if you had the opportunity?

Mikey Lynch is one of the directors of Geneva Push and regularly sharing his thoughts here on this Christian Reflections blog.

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