How to Get More Out of the Preached Word of God

sermon preaching

Christian believers sitting in church hear a lot of sermons.  Sermons preached from the Old and New Testaments.  Sermons preached through exposition and sermons preached on topics.  Special sermons for holidays, weddings, ordinations, and during revival meetings.

My personal conviction is that growing believers in Christ should also be ingesting the Word through personal Bible study, online videos, podcasts, CDs, books, or from radio broadcasts.  All maturing believers want to grow in the Word of God and the teaching/preaching ministry is one of the primary spiritual disciplines where this growth takes place.

Yet many believers view preaching as an observational act.  They take the posture of politely and respectfully listening, but not doing much of anything else.  They would all agree that they are there to learn and be challenged in the Word, but in actuality, they are very inactive in the learning process, very passive in the spiritual discipline, and very unengaged while the preacher is preaching.

They leave saying, “I really didn’t get much out of that message.”  While it might be true, it could be avoided.

So how can maturing Christ-followers get more out of the preached Word of God?  How can those in the pews become more intentionally involved, feasting upon the spoken Word, engaging the message actively rather than passively?

Here are some ideas on what you can do to get more out of the sermon?  (These are not new or highly innovative, however, I promise they will help.)

1. Read the passage ahead of time.  Your pastor may send out a weekly email or post something on social media with the sermon text, look it up and read it.  Or when you arrive, find sermon text in the bulletin and read it.  If you have to email your pastor and ask for a preaching plan with sermon texts for the whole month.

Do whatever it takes to get that passage in your mind before the service starts.  If you do, you will notice the worship songs point to the key themes of the passage, maybe even the whole direction of the service.  Plus when the pastor reads the text in the sermon, it will be at least your second time going through it.  The flow, the words, the context will make much more sense to you when you’ve done your homework ahead of time.

2.  Pray before the preaching time starts.  Our church has an offertory time before the sermon, which is usually just the piano playing.  I spend this time to specifically ask the Holy Spirit of God to speak to my heart during the message.

Try to carve out a moment of spiritual space where you directly, humbly, ask God Almighty to speak to your heart.  We call that the “prayer of illumination.”  To be certain, God always desires to speak to His people, but we must tune our hearts and spiritual ears toward Him to hear as He speaks.

3. Open your own Bible and study along.  This seems like a no-brainer, but I am seeing less and less people bring their Bibles to church.  Even less open them during the sermon and keep them open the whole time – start to finish.

This has to be the most passive, unengaged Christian in the pew (and probably the most spiritually immature).  If you come to hear the preached Word of God and leave your Bible at home, you are telling God His Word is not valuable enough to carry a few steps to the car and into the building.

You can’t drive your car without the keys.  You don’t go to the grocery without your wallet.  You don’t go to preaching without your Bible. God’s Word is what is inspired and authoritative, not the preacher and his sermon.  Open it.  Use it.  Engage with it.  Underline, circle, mark it up.  It makes all the difference in the world.

4. Take notes during the message.  Taking notes during the sermon has been around for years, but now with all the technology and visual support, I am seeing less and less people actually bring a journal with them to worship.  They are leaning on sermon notes, bulletin inserts, and the Scripture being shown on-screen.  As a preacher, I provide all those support tools, but as a hearer, I take notes in a journal.

I journal during the sermon because in writing my own thoughts, my own understandings, my own questions, I hear the voice of God more clearly.  I hear what God is saying directly to me, which might be very different than what the preacher is saying to others.

Journaling has other benefits as well.  Later, I can go back and reflect on what God was saying to me months, maybe even years ago.  Secondly, I stay far more engaged if I am listening, writing, reflecting, and interacting with the message.  The more active I become, the less passive I am.

5. Finally, make an effort to hear the Spirit of God.  Pray before the sermon.  Pray while the sermon is being preached.  Pray when the sermon is finished.  You do your part as a growing believer in Christ to hear, receive, reflect and act upon the message God has sent to you through His Word.

Preaching may seem like a monologue, where one person is speaking and everyone else is listening, but it is not.  Preaching is a dialogue.  God is speaking through a vessel and we, His people, are listening, questioning, answering, and turning over God’s Word in our mind actively and rigorously.  You might not raise your hand and ask a question right in the middle of the sermon, but trust me, it’s a two-way street.

God always speaks.  The real question is: will you be ready to hear what He says?

 

Cross-Vocational Thinking in a Full-Time Ministry World

full timeIt seemed the goal of every seminarian I studied with was to be called as a full-time pastor, minister, missionary, non-profit leader, etc.  Rarely did I meet anyone whose desire was to be cross-vocational.

The singular aspiration was to find full-time support with full-time benefits, combing with a full-time salary, resulting in full-time demands in their ministry calling. The idea of going cross-vocational (my terminology for bi-vocational) was the furthest thing from their mind.

And to be honest, as a 20-something seminarian, I had the same mindset. While I served cross-vocationally my entire seminary life (i.e., working at a publishing company, a community center, a toy store, parking cars at a country club, substitute teaching while serving as a part-time youth minister), I dreamed of one day being on full-time staff.

I desperately wanted to be called to one place serving them full-time so I could be single-minded in my vocation and not so tired from running all over the place trying to make ends meet.

So when seminary graduation came, my hopes for full-time ministry were finally fulfilled.  I was called to serve a church as a full-time associate pastor.  That is what I did for the next 5 years.  I served full-time, 40, 50, 60 hours per week, week in and week out.  I thought I had finally made it to the big time.

But quickly I started noticing something I had not anticipated.  I started noticing that I was constantly surrounded with Christian people.  All my friends were Christians.  All the people I interacted with on a weekly basis were Christians.  Most of the time the only people I saw were church members and their families.

The demands of full-time ministry pushed me further and further into an entirely Christian sub-culture.  I rarely heard cuss words anymore.  I rarely saw people get drunk and stumble out to their car.  I rarely heard any of the office gossip I remembered from the publishing company, because my office was now a church office.

My full-time ministry was pulling me further into a vacuum-like tunnel where all I did was serve Christian people, teach Christian people, counsel Christian people and walk alongside Christian people.  Encountering someone without a relationship with Jesus Christ was rare.

This is the danger of full-time ministry, particularly in a local church.  On the mission field and in the non-profit world, there are plenty of interactions with unbelievers, but church-based pastoral ministry can be very insulated from the real depth of spiritual lostness.

That is why I have loved (and thrived) in cross-vocational ministry on the Christian college campus.  My university admits all sorts of people, believers and unbelievers, domestic and internationals.  While I am still somewhat in a Christian bubble, I do interact with all sorts of people who know very little about Jesus or even nothing at all.  They are students in my classes, athletes on scholarship, internationals studying abroad, and non-traditional students giving college a second chance.

I still serve the local church and love preaching and teaching God’s Word to God’s people, but being connected with unbelievers reminds me that Jesus came into the world to save sinners like me.  He came and died and commissioned us to live sent, live missionally, live in a world that desperately needs to know Him.

Cross-vocational ministry has provided a much easier path to missional living than full-time church ministry ever could have.  I pray that more and more pastors, ministers, and seminarians will consider giving their lives to cross-vocational ministry as a life calling.  Full-time is nice, cross-vo (in my humble opinion) is better.

Building Momentum in Ministry

momentum 2

In the world of business leadership, there is much effort given to building and maintaining momentum.  Momentum is the underlying force that creates stronger morale among employees and customers and makes everyone involved feel excitement and anticipation.

In business, marketers try to create momentum around a new product or promotion.  CEOs and presidents try to create momentum around a new vision or campaign.  Management tries to create momentum around a new person, new assignment, or new department being added.

In the world of ministry leadership, particularly church-based leadership, the same effort is given to building and maintaining organizational and organic momentum.

Organizational momentum is when the church starts gaining small victories.  Small wins, that individually are not overly significant, but collectively propel a sense of “we are going somewhere” and “something good is finally happening around here.”

Organic momentum is when you actually start seeing spiritual growth in people, particularly those you are investing deeply in, and visible growth in a variety of metrics (e.g., giving, worship attendance, baptisms, small groups started, outreach efforts, mission trips, etc.)

The key for gaining organizational and organic momentum is seeing it as a real goal to actively strive toward.  Most pastoral leaders want to build momentum philosophically, but it is not really something that shows up on their week-to-week radar.  They want momentum to build toward their larger vision for transformation and growth, but they are not doing anything intentional to make it happen.  And for that reason, months come and months go and really nothing is gained.

So how do you build momentum on a week-by-week basis in ministry leadership?

1.  Tell lots of success stories.  Sharing the small victories over and over publicly in worship, in printed materials, on the church website, in small groups, in staff meetings, in leadership circles, wherever, whenever, with whomever you can.  You must keep telling the success stories.  No one will care, or even notice, if you don’t.  And when you start feeling like a broken record, you are not done.  Total submersion is the goal.

2.  Recast the vision over and over.  Along with sharing small victories, you have to keep casting the vision of growth, change, renovation, renewal, and revitalization.  To be a leader, you must take people to a place they would not go by themselves.  We all know Rick Warren’s axiom that vision must be cast every 28 days.  I am starting to believe it needs to be every 7-10 days in this culture.

You don’t have to cast all parts or every aspect of the vision all the time, but momentum is built when the larger body sees how this particular piece fits in with where things are moving and going.

3.  Give other people room to excel and then praise them publicly for it.  Momentum is a shared experience.  In other words, momentum begets more momentum.  When one of your teammates does something well, shout it from the rooftops.  Give them room to succeed and then cheer lead for them.  Cheer lead especially for the ones that often get overlooked like landscaping and maintenance, senior adult groups, benevolence, children’s ministry leaders, and the fellowship committees.

4.  Capitalize on the seasons of newness in the annual calendar.  There are several times a year when momentum can be built as a natural out-flow from the calendar.   Fall is perfect because of the start of school.  January is also strong with the new year.  I personally like the 90 day push of February-March-April because it has huge exclamation point at the end – Resurrection.  If you capitalize on these seasons, you will find momentum easier to gain.

5.  Lastly, don’t be afraid to be happy about what is happening.  Let your emotions show.  We all know there is a proper place for humility and recognition that all good gifts (including momentum) come from the Lord.  But you must let your people see that you are excited.  That you are sense a building anticipation.  That you see things happening and are so thrilled to be part of a move of God.

There is nothing wrong with being joyful that you are not in a dead church going nowhere fast, but God has been so gracious to plant you in a living church that is on the move.

Momentum is a one of those fleeting things that is hard to come by and even harder to sustain.  Here today, gone tomorrow is a very suitable cliché.  But when you do build momentum organizationally and organically, I encourage you to pour gas on the fire because it might be a while before it burns this hot again.

Ministry Nay-Sayers in the Crowd

Jesus fish bread

Image from Expressions from Hallmark

The best birthday card I got this summer had a wonderful image on the front.  The image had Jesus trying to feed the 5000 but a few nay-sayers in the crowd wouldn’t have any of it.

The inside caption read “Avoid complainers and have a great birthday.”  Thanks Mrs. Sherry.  This was a perfect card for me.

We live in a world where even the miracles of Jesus, such as feeding the 5000, would be scrutinized, questioned and scorned by people because of their personal preference and desires.

In all types of ministry leadership, there are going to be people who nay-say everything you do.  They say “it costs too much,” “it won’t work,” or the dreaded, “we have never done it that way before.”

In a very real way these individuals believe their sole purpose on the planet is to hold others back.  To press their unhappiness onto the whole group.  To come across as the wise and prudent, but actually represent the grumpy and stubborn.

I have faced some of these types in my life.  But guess what, so did Jesus.

In John 5, we read that immediately after Jesus healed a lame man at the Pool of Bethesda, the ministry nay-sayers of his day began questioning his methods.  They completely overlooked that a paralyzed man who had been 38 years on his back was now walking about, and instead focused on how Jesus broke a Sabbath law.  The phrase “you can’t win from losin” comes to mind.

True ministry leadership has to rise above the nay-sayers.  True Christ-like leaders have to use the nay-saying as fuel to greater communication and vision.  You have to take their words of disapproval and use them as incentive that you are on to something good and right.  Yet if you linger in their words, you will never do anything for the Lord.  You will become stagnant, withdrawn and scared.

Maybe you have experienced ministry nay-sayers in your life.  If so, I suggest trying two things in response to them.

1.  Thank God for them.  It may seem counter-intuitive to praise God for their nay-saying, but their presence might be the assurance you need to know you are onto something God-sized.

2.  Make it a challenge.  Ask them if they will try something with you.  Ask them to agreed to whatever you are proposing for short-time period and if it works, they must be first to admit they were wrong.  But if they are right and you are wrong, you must agree to be the first to admit your failure and try something else.

With a handshake and a challenge in place, you might discover the nay-sayers will become your greatest advocate and partner in leadership.

Last Letter to Hurstbourne BC

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Resurrection Sunday 2014

We knew it would eventually come to an end.   I am sure you have heard the old saying, “All good things must come to an end.” Well, I don’t think I like that saying any more, especially when it comes to the ending of ministry together.

I want every person at Hurstbourne BC to know how much Jennifer, the boys and I have loved being with you. You welcomed us with open arms from the earliest days and have treated us like family every Sunday we been there. Never once did we feel like outsiders. Instead, you made us feel like long-time friends and family.

I want to say a very extra special thank to the pastoral staff – Chris, Cameron, Jeff and Vince – along with office team of Carolyn, Carmen and Mike. Each one of these men and women are top-notch servant-leaders who remain kingdom-minded and Gospel-focused in all they do. Serving with them has been a tremendous joy.

I want to also say thank you to the Personnel Team led by Mrs. Jan Watts. From the beginning interview, through the entire interim, until today, this group, in general and Mrs. Jan in particular, have been so easy to work with and serve alongside. They have made this one of the best interim experiences I have ever had.

I believe there are very bright days ahead for HBC. I believe there are hundreds of people who will come through your doors in the coming months. I encourage and challenge you to treat them just like you have treated us. Introduce yourself. Make them feel at home. Show them around. Help them find the way to the gym, which I still struggle to find. Treat them to your warmest hospitality and friendship as you have done for us.

If you do that, HBC will explode with new faces, new ministry ventures, and news ways to be a blessing to your community. The ride is just beginning. I hope you are ready.

I love you all and will forever keep you in my heart.

Grace, Shane

5 Things VBS Is that Other Ministries are Usually Not

VBS Family Night at Hurstbourne Bapt Church, Louisville, KY

VBS Family Night at Hurstbourne Bapt Church, Louisville, KY

For me a conversation about local church ministry does not take long until the subject of VBS (Vacation Bible School) comes around.  It is no surprise to anyone who knows me and my story, that I am a huge fan of VBS.

I came to saving faith through the ministry of VBS and love to tell how thousands of lives are transformed each and every year through this powerful outreach.  I will always say “Yes” to VBS.

But if I put my bias aside and attempt to critically, analytically evaluate the benefits of VBS, I have discovered that this ministry does some things that other ministries simply do not.  VBS has some advantages, strategically, that most ministries in the local church don’t even compare to.

Such as…

1.  VBS is highly intergenerational.  Meaning all age groups, both young and old, and everything in the middle, interact and spend time together for one week.  They worship together, study together, fellowship together, and serve together.  What other ministry effort joins hundreds of volunteers from all ages for one week and structures an experience where they get to know one another and serve as one big, happy family?  I can not think of anything we present have that creates intergenerational connections as much as VBS.

2.  VBS is very collaborative.  When kids ministry leaders attempt to pull off a VBS week, it requires significant time planning, collaborating and communicating together.  There are various teams, such as preschool, crafts, music, food, administration, follow-up, etc, all working together to make sure all the details are managed.  Volunteers of all ages and backgrounds talk and share ideas together about what they should do and what they should avoid.  I would have to believe this week is the most collaborative ministry event on the church calendar.

3.  VBS is intentionally evangelistic.  It goes without saying that VBS far outpaces most other ministry efforts when it comes to intentional evangelism.  I have heard a leading VBS expert (from my SBC tribe) say that for the past 30 years there has not been any other ministry effort even come close to the number of salvations that VBS has seen.  Not revival meetings, not disaster relief, not food and clothing ministries come close.

4.  VBS is one of the remaining creative outlets in the church.  With the ending of the Easter pageants and Christmas plays, there are not many outlets left in church life where Christian people are encouraged to use their artistic gifts.  There are not times when sets are built, rooms are elaborately decorated, costumes are pulled out and put to use, paint brushes and construction paper fly wildly.  The Creator God has created us to be mini-creators, but there are not many ways to utilize these gift any more, particularly in the visual arts.  VBS provides this creative outlet each and every year.

5.  Lastly, VBS has service opportunities for every believer in Christ, no matter their spiritual maturity level.  Everyone can serve somewhere.  Whether you have been a Christian for less than a year or you are nearing the time when you will see Jesus face to face, VBS has a place for you to serve.

When you put these 5 things up against almost every other ministry venue in the local church, VBS stands above.  While the music ministry is intergenerational, it is not intentionally evangelistic.  While Sunday School and small groups are very collaborative, those ministry venues are not overtly creative.  VBS stands above.  It has benefits that other ministries do not have.

So if you are a longtime VBS’er, I commend you to not give up.   If your church hasn’t done VBS in a while, consider bringing it back and see what it provides.  If you have never served in VBS, commit to giving it a chance in 2015.  I believe you will see that it is absolutely worth it.

A KBC Boy from CU, SWBTS, SBTS and back to CU with No Problems Whatsoever

In the midst of a rather weighty and public dialogue happening between Campbellsville University and the Kentucky Baptist Convention, I wanted to shore up a few personal things about my experience as a Campbellsville student (’99 alumnus) and as a CU School of Theology faculty member since 2008.

I can’t speak for everyone who has been through our doors, but here are the indisputable, unshakeable facts about my personal experience at CU and connection with the KBC.

- I was saved and baptized in a rural KBC church in 1987 – the Lewisport Baptist Church in Lewisport, KY – through the ministry of VBS.  I have been a member of KBC church every year of my born-again Christian life, except while in TX during seminary.

- My home church supported my decision to go to Campbellsville University in the mid-90’s and even helped me financially.

- My personal faith in Christ exploded while at CU.  My understanding and belief in the Bible grew 10-fold.  My love for taking the Gospel to the unreached peoples of the world “blew up” while studying here.  My call to ministry was significantly nurtured and encouraged.  The opportunities to serve in KBC churches and in God’s kingdom through all sorts of ministries was enhanced and elevated simply because I was at CU.

- After CU, I studied at Southwestern Baptist Theo. Seminary in Fort Worth, TX.  There wasn’t one thing at SWBTS that made me question my academic experience at CU.  It only added to what was already there – biblically, theologically, philosophically, and practically – everything was in line.

- While in seminary, I served in two SBC churches as youth minister.  In those churches I used what I learned at CU and from SWBTS without having to modify any of my core convictions or theological roots.  They were perfectly in line with traditional Baptistic ways.

- After seminary, I served a KBC church in Northern KY.  Again, no problems whatsoever theologically, biblically or practically.  My training at CU combined with SWBTS was in sync with kingdom-building, Gospel-expanding principles of leadership and strategy.

- As I began my doctoral studies at the Southern Baptist Theo. Seminary, again there were no problems whatsoever.  Actually, what I had learned at CU, plus SWBTS, plus in practical church experience made my SBTS time even more fruitful.  There were no snickers that a CU guy was studying at SBTS.  Even as I finished at SBTS and started my first year teaching at CU, no one said a word.  No one hinted of any problems.  All in all, everything was positive as far as I could tell.

- Six years ago when I came to CU to be considered for a position in the School of Theology, I was asked lots of questions.  My theology, biblical interpretation, methodology, experience, and practice of the spiritual disciplines were all questioned in the interview process.  Not because I was a risky candidate, but because that is what we do with everyone who is considered.

- In the 6 years I have been in the classroom, I have never been told to do anything other than teach biblical truths with my theological convictions openly and honestly before my students Everyone knows where I stand on things and that has never been a problem.  Again, no issues whatsoever.

- In addition to teaching, CU leaders have overwhelmingly embraced and encouraged me to continue serving in KBC churches.  I have served four KBC churches as interim pastor: Parkway BC, Bethany BC, Lancaster BC and Hurstbourne BC.  There has never been any issues with me being a CU, SWBTS, SBTS and KBC guy.  Again, no issues whatsoever.

- Lastly, my wife is nearing the completion of her Ph.D. from SBTS in Family Ministry and has taught five classes at CU as an adjunct instructor.  Again, no problems or issues whatsoever.

Are you seeing a running theme?  In summary, we are, and have always been, KBC connected.  My family are, and will continue to be,  members of a KBC church.  I will hopefully, if God wills, continue serving as an interim pastor in KBC churches.

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