7 Ways to Help Your Minister Preach Better

In many churches, the sermon is the central part of the worship service. On a weekly basis, ministers are judged by how well they communicate God’s Word. For visitors and seekers, the sermon plays a critical role in whether or not they return for another Sunday. Thom Rainer reported in Surprising Insights from the Unchurched (2008), that 90% of unchurched people choose a church based on the pastor and the preaching. Although this survey is a bit outdated, I think it is still true that the quality of the preaching is important to both those inside and outside the church.

In spite of these high expectations, or perhaps because of them, many sermons miss their mark. At least mine have!

Preaching is a high calling, one that most ministers take very seriously. Good preaching requires study, reflection, and insight into God’s Word, as well as an understanding of the days we live in and an awareness of the needs of the congregation. If preaching is so important in our churches, why is all the pressure put on one person to ensure that it is done well? I want to suggest that it shouldn’t be left to the efforts of one person.

Hearing the Word

I would like to suggest 7 ways you can help your minister preach better sermons.

  1. Show up. It is discouraging for pastors to preach to empty pews. It takes as much preparation time to preach to 15 people as it does to 150 people. Your minister may tell you that the small number sitting in the pews is not important and to some degree that is likely true, but if a sermon is going to impact a congregation, the congregation needs to be there! Personally, I find that facing empty pews very distracting, particularly if the empty pews are between me and the congregation.
  2. Come rested. The church would be quite upset if the minister stood up on Sunday morning and explained that he or she did not use their time well during the week and stayed up too late, leaving them too tired to prepare a sermon. Yet, many in the congregation plan their Saturdays in such a way that they arrive on Sunday morning with little energy to take in a message that took all week to prepare.
  3. Arrive early. Many distractions on Sunday morning hinder our preparation for worship. Arriving early can provide a few minutes to be quiet and to prepare one’s heart for worship.
  4. Expect to hear God speak in your worship experience and from the Word. Evangelist George Whitefield (d. 1770) in his sermon on how to listen to a sermon reminds us to listen with the right attitude.

Come to hear them, not out of curiosity, but from a sincere desire to know and do your duty. To enter His house merely to have our ears entertained, and not our hearts reformed, must certainly be highly displeasing to the Most High God, as well as unprofitable to ourselves.

Give diligent heed to the things that are spoken from the Word of God. If an earthly king were to issue a royal proclamation, and the life or death of his subjects entirely depended on performing or not performing its conditions, how eager would they be to hear what those conditions were! And shall we not pay the same respect to the King of kings, and Lord of lords, and lend an attentive ear to His ministers, when they are declaring, in His name, how our pardon, peace, and happiness may be secured?”

5. Look like you are happy to be there! Congregations have no idea how glum most of them appear on Sunday mornings! Smile. Take notes. Say an occasional “Praise the Lord!” I love preaching in churches where people talk back to me. A “Preach it, sister!” from the congregation stirs up my spirit and energizes me!

6. Give thoughtful and timely feedback. I often told my congregation that if they liked my message they could let me know that morning on their way out. If they didn’t like it, then they should wait until at least Wednesday to tell me! General feedback like, “Good message this morning” is not very helpful. Explaining which part of the message was meaningful or how it applied to your life will encourage the preacher. Notes or emails from members of my congregation sharing how a sermon encouraged, inspired or challenged them are precious reminders of how God speaks through frail and imperfect preachers with His perfect and powerful Word.

7. Pray. Pray during the week. Those who do not preach regularly have no idea of the work and discipline that goes into sermon preparation. Good preachers seek to be biblically accurate and relevant to the various ages and levels of spiritual maturity of their congregants. They seek to be deep enough to challenge believers but not so deep as to leave in the dust the seeker who just walked into the service. Pray during the sermon for clarity and courage of the preacher. Pray for yourself to hear God speak to you and to respond in obedience.

Preaching – A two-way street

Effective communication requires both a speaker and a listener. A preacher is influenced not just by the Spirit of God, not just by the preparation that has been done in solitude and in prayer, but also by those who listen to the message. By being a better listener on Sunday mornings you just might find that your minister is a better preacher than you had realized!

 

NEWS!

I am taking a short break from blogging. I have two projects on the go – one to finish and one to begin. I want to finish my first ebook and I plan to start a podcast. I have been blogging for several years now and want to explore podcasting. My podcast, “Looking For More” will focus on connecting Christians who feel disconnected from the church. I will let you know when it is ready to launch!

 

4 Reasons to Leave Your Church

There are many reasons people will leave their church. Although circumstances are different for each person, I believe there are four reasons that that are the most valid ones to warrant leaving a local church.

FOUR OF THE BEST REASONS

1) You or someone you know is being abused. We expect our churches to be safe places and most often they are but abuse does happen. It may come in many forms, the most common being physical, sexual and emotional abuse. However, there is another form of abuse that is getting more attention – spiritual abuse. There are many resources online that can help you recognize this form of abuse. Two websites you might find helpful are churchleaders.com (http://churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/155481-10-ways-to-spot-spiritual-abuse.html/ and the National Association for Christian Recovery (http://www.nacr.org/abuse/spiritual-abuse). If there is abuse, report it to the authorities and leave that church. If you are the victim, seeking professional help may be necessary.

2) God calls you to serve at another church. Some churches are short on volunteers. I appreciate the sacrifice of people who give up the comfort of their own church to serve a church that needs them more. Serving provides opportunities to use your gifts and to make a difference in the lives of others. It is one of the best ways to get to know a congregation. I have observed that people who are involved in a church are usually happier than those who just sit in the pew.

3) Your presence hinders growth in the church in general or in the lives of specific people. Some individuals make life miserable for others in the church because of their constant complaining, demands and lack of cooperation. Their leaving is like a breath of fresh air! There are other ways a person’s presence might hinder the growth of others. Attending the same church as an ex-spouse is one such case. Also, I know parents of adult children who chose to attend a different church so that their children would feel freer to get involved unhindered by their parents’ presence or opinions.

4) The teaching of the church is not biblical. There are different opinions on what is “biblical”.  Common differences between denominations such as the role of women, church governance, and mode of baptism, are not core Christian doctrine. Rather than using these issues to determine if a church is biblical or not, use instead, a statement of basic Christian beliefs such as the Apostles’ Creed or Nicene Creed. Whether or not a church uses these creeds in worship is irrelevant. The question is whether or not the church believes in the central Christian doctrines that are well stated in these historic Christian creeds.

REASONS THAT DIDN’T MAKE THE LIST

You may be surprised at my short list. This is not an exhaustive list but I believe the reasons stated above are the best reasons to leave. Here are four common reasons for leaving a church:

I don’t like the preaching – Before leaving a church over the preaching, I suggest trying to be a better listener first. In the next blog post, I will suggest ways that you can make your pastor a better preacher. Also, Sunday morning is not the only time you have access to sermons. If you want excellent preaching, go online. There you can listen to preachers who have honed their craft and whose sole focus is preaching. Pastors of local congregations do not have that luxury. They have pastoral care responsibilities, teaching, meetings and many other responsibilities, not to mention the emergencies that arise. I used to say to my congregation, “If you want to hear an excellent sermon, go online. If you want to experience church, you need to come here.” Church is more than the preaching and to judge a church by Sundays’ sermons is short-sighted. A similar complaint to this is “I’m not being spiritually fed.” Before leaving a church based on this I would first make sure that you are taking responsibility to spiritually feed yourself. Today there are many resources available to help you do this.

I don’t like the music used for worship – The church is not there to cater to your preferences. Besides, these days we have 24/7 access to our favorite music online. I don’t feel the need to sing my favorite worship songs on Sunday mornings. I do that all week long. I have a playlist of favorite YouTube worship music videos that I listen to and sing along as loudly and as often as I wish!

The church is too inwardly focused – Some churches are focused too much on their own needs and comfort. If you are new to the church, your insights and ideas may be just what the church needs in order to see things from a different perspective. If you are not new but have not been in a position of leadership, offer to lead where you can make a difference. Try it before giving up on that church.

The church has nothing to offer me outside of Sunday morning. Some churches have little to offer individuals who are in the minority in their church. It might be a certain age group or demographic such as older singles or people who are divorced. Instead of expecting programs to fit your need why not start one? It might be possible to reach out to other churches in the area to find people with the same interests and needs without having to leave your church. For families though, I feel differently. Local churches need to support parents and provide suitable programs for teens and children. I have seen many parents bring their children to church only to find they have to teach their own children in Sunday School or children’s church because there are not enough volunteers. If our churches desire to reach the younger generation for Christ and nurture them in the faith we need to have programs and volunteers to provide for the spiritual needs of children and youth.

CAN YOU SPOT THE DIFFERENCE?

I hope you notice a basic difference between the first four reasons and the last four. I am not saying that the last four reasons are never good reasons to leave a church but I am suggesting that they do not automatically qualify as good reasons.

What do you think?

I’m interested in knowing what you think. I am writing from the perspective of a pastor (Can you tell?), so my perspective may be different from yours. Am I being too narrow or too harsh? Let me know. What are some of the valid reasons you’ve had for leaving a church?

5 Choices to make BEFORE You Choose to Leave Your Church

I love the church! It has a unique role in the world as God’s chosen vehicle of communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Church makes Christ visible by demonstrating His love to broken and needy people. However, the local church often fails to fulfill this role effectively. Often the church is a hindrance to the very thing it is meant to do, and instead drives people away from God.

I am concerned about the number of people I know or I’ve heard about who have left their local church or are considering doing so.

Some of these people are seekers who sincerely want to know what Christianity is all about and what they experience at the local church turns them off. Others are committed Christians who are faithful followers of Jesus who give and serve but want to go deeper but are frustrated by the shallowness of their church.

Some individuals I know have left their church over petty offenses while others have left over major issues in the church.

I want to urge you, if you are thinking about leaving your local church, not to make that choice until you have made the following five choices first.

#1. Choose not to listen to those who are quick to tell you to leave.

I’m talking about your family and closest friends. Because they love you they want you to be happy and are likely to advise you to leave any place where you are unhappy. Taking their advice might short circuit God’s plan for you.

One exception to this is if your life is in danger or if you are experiencing abuse of any kind at your church. In that case, stay away from there! There are other good reasons to leave a church which I will address in my next blog post, but most reasons are not urgent. Staying where you are just a little bit longer will not have a negative impact in most cases.

#2. Choose a reasonable deadline when you will decide whether the Lord wants you to stay or leave.

By planning this date in advance, it will help prevent you from making a rash decision based on emotion alone. If the date arrives and you are still not sure what to do, set another date and continue to wait on God to show you what your decision should be.

#3. Choose to protect the reputation of the church and the pastor.

Guard your words. Negativity is contagious. Rumors begin very easily. You can create new problems or escalate existing ones by complaining to others in the church and to those who are not in the church. You may forever hurt the reputation of the pastor and the church as a whole. Most importantly, you may bring dishonor to the name of Christ. Above all, seek to honor His name, even as you work through your discontentment with His people.

#4. Choose to talk with the person who is most responsible for your problem or who can address the problem.

If your problem is with an individual then deal directly with that individual. Most Christians I find are not willing to follow what is clearly laid out in scripture that most offenses between individuals are to be dealt with on a one-to-one basis (Matthew 18:15). There are times when others are to be involved (Matthew 18:16-17). The goal is to restore the broken relationship, if possible.

If it is a wider church issue, talk to the pastor or to the leadership team. They deserve to know. They have served you and have spent countless hours providing opportunities for your spiritual growth. Give them the courtesy of speaking with them about your concerns.

I would like to speak from the perspective of a pastor. I have pastored overseas and also here in Canada. Nothing is so discouraging as hearing that a faithful member has left the church. Most pastors I know blame themselves when this happens and often church members blame the pastor as well.

When you share your concerns with the pastor:

  • You ease some of the guilt. I have appreciated those who have told me honestly why they were leaving. Sometimes it was my failure to meet expectations and sometimes it had nothing to do with me, but at least I knew the reason.
  • You can provide valuable feedback. Sometimes the pastor is totally unaware that people are unhappy or if they are, why they are. Feedback given thoughtfully and in a timely manner can help the pastor and church leaders make necessary changes.

To Shake or Not to Shake

One elderly church member came to my office one day and said he thought we should stop shaking hands at church because he feared the spread of germs and sickness. I felt that if we did not shake hands after the service that the church would be perceived as not very welcoming. I thanked him for his concern and decided to do an experiment to see if he was alone in his concern or if there were others who felt the same way. The following Sunday I shared with the congregation that this concern had been brought to me and I was wondering how many other people were also concerned. I asked everyone on their way out after the service to let me know if they felt we should stop shaking hands. I added that if they didn’t want to shake hands they were to find another way to communicate a warm and welcoming greeting. The results were interesting! Very few people wanted to discontinue the practice. Some people hugged me explaining that they preferred hugs to handshakes any day! Others who didn’t want to spread or catch germs bumped elbows instead and still others blew me kisses! I kid you not! Because one person brought their concern to me, I was able to get necessary feedback and most people seemed to enjoy the experiment.

  • You can help share the burden. You may discover that your observations, concerns and experiences are shared by the pastor. By coming alongside the church leadership you can help support your spiritual leaders through prayer and offering to be a part of the solution.
  • You can be given an explanation. Sometimes people overreact to half-truths or draw wrong conclusions. By sharing your concerns with the pastor, he or she may be able to give you an explanation without breaking confidences that just might change your mind.

“BIBLICAL” COMMUNION

A few years ago, our church changed the format of communion so that one month the format was traditional and the next month it was contemporary. I heard that many people were unhappy but few people actually came to talk with me about it. One woman did and I appreciated our conversation. It gave me a chance to explain why we were doing it both ways. I also discovered that some of her understanding of communion was based on tradition rather than on the scriptures. That conversation resulted in me preaching a sermon on communion where I was able to clarify what the Bible actually said about the format that communion should take (it doesn’t say much!) and explain some of our traditions. I received a lot of positive feedback on that sermon. Because one person had the courage to speak with me other people benefited.

#5. Choose to be willing to stay if that is God’s will.

It seems to me that many Christians want God to do THEIR will rather than commit themselves to doing HIS will. In considering all of these choices a believer needs to be constantly seeking God’s will. You may wonder, “Why would God want me to stay in a church where I am not happy?” There are several possible reasons:

  • You may be part of the solution. Your continued involvement, wisdom, spiritual gifts and prayers may be part of God’s plan for the church.
  • Your presence may help provide stability to the church during a rough period in the life of the church.  I am so grateful for the number of people I know who did not run every time our church faced a challenging time. These people were committed to the church and by continuing to participate, give and serve they provided stability until things settled down. When people leave, particularly if several people leave at the same time and if they have been very active members, they can set the church back years. Withdrawing financial support or volunteer hours can cripple a church and make moving on even more difficult.
  • Your own spiritual growth. It is human nature to want to leave when things are not to our liking. I know that is true for me. When I am offended by someone or angered by a situation, my first impulse is to walk away. I say to myself, “I don’t need you!” or “I don’t need this in my life!” Fortunately, I have learned not to act on those immature impulses. Instead of fleeing, God may be calling you to stay where you are. It is in difficult times that we have the greatest opportunity to grow spiritually.

The book of James, written to believers facing trials, challenges us with these words,

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” James 1:2-4

If you desire to grow spiritually, staying where you are just might be the answer to prayer you have been seeking. However, if you have prayerfully considered these five choices and still believe that it is God’s will for you to leave your church, you can do so with greater confidence that it is the right thing to do.

WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR EXPERIENCE?

I would be interested in knowing what has contributed to you leaving a church or in choosing to stay when you wanted to leave. Comment below and start a conversation!

If you know someone who is facing this dilemma and think this post could help them, please share it. Thanks!

Before You Leave Your Church – Part 2

Disunity and conflict

If you are in a local church and you are considering leaving, take the time to think and pray about it. Be clear about why you want to leave.

In this post, I want to address those who want to leave their church because of conflict and disunity.

LESSONS FROM TWO NEW TESTAMENT CHURCHES

  1. The church in Jerusalem

In the book of Acts, the church in Jerusalem is pretty close to being a perfect church in my opinion. The first four chapters of Acts describe a church with:

  • powerful preaching
  • Spirit-filled believers
  • persistent and powerful prayer
  • a commitment to fellowship and worship
  • boldness in evangelism
  • power to perform miracles
  • caring and sharing of resources so that none of the believers were in need

Wouldn’t you enjoy being a part of that church?

Yet, in spite of these strengths, jealousy and lying reared their ugly heads. Acts 5 tells the sobering story of Ananias and his wife Sapphira, who wanted to appear more generous than they were by selling a piece of land and giving the money to the church. However, they claimed that they were giving all the money from the sale, when in fact, they kept some of the money for themselves.  God’s judgement came upon them harshly and immediately (Acts 5:5,10).

The church in Jerusalem reminds us that even the most dynamic, Spirit-filled church is not perfect. If sin could arise in that church, should we be surprised when unacceptable behavior is seen in our own church?

  1. The church in Corinth

This church was very different from the church in Jerusalem. You probably would not seek out a church like this one! Here are some of the issues faced by this church:

  • immorality in the church
  • arguments and infighting
  • Christians suing each other
  • chaotic worship services
  • abuse of spiritual gifts
  • greed and selfishness displayed even at the Communion table

Recently I was studying 1 Corinthians chapter 1 and I gained some insight into this church and its problems that I believe is relevant for today. In this chapter, conflict and division arose regarding church leadership. Some of the believers claimed to follow Paul, others followed Apollos, others claimed that Cephas (Peter) was their man, and the most spiritual among them claimed that they just followed Jesus (I Corinthians 1:12)!

Let’s consider the appeal of these human leaders. (Obviously, they weren’t all following Jesus or they wouldn’t have been in the mess they were!) Why didn’t they all follow Paul? He started the church (Acts 18:1–17). Perhaps many of the Gentiles were drawn to Paul who was called to minister to them.  Some of the Jewish believers though questioned Paul’s authority for he was not one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, but Peter was. In fact, Peter was one of Jesus’ closest friends. His words likely carried more weight in the opinion of some of the Corinthian Jewish Christians. The third man in the leadership race was Apollos. He was well versed in the Old Testament and was an eloquent speaker and effective in debate (Acts 18:28). He perhaps appealed to the more cultured members of the church.

SUCCESS → PROBLEMS

I believe that one reason for this lack of unity regarding leadership was due to the SUCCESS of this church in Corinth. Through effective preaching, and witnessing through word and deed, this church attracted people who were diverse in at least two ways.

Diversity in Social Standing

Two men are mentioned in this chapter, Sosthenes (v.1) and Crispus (v.14) who had high standing in the Jewish community (see Acts 18:1-17) as leaders in the synagogue. However, it appears that most people in the church did not have such status, for Paul says to them and of them,

Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many of noble birth.” (1 Corinthians 1:26)

Diversity in Culture

This church consisted of both Jews and Gentiles with very different cultural beliefs, values and history. What these two cultures did have in common was their contempt for the other. Because of Christ, they were now brothers and sisters in the faith in the Corinthian church.

With these differences, it is easy to see why there might be conflict. Successful evangelism can lead to all kinds of problems even today. Growth can lead to misunderstandings and power struggles. Numerical growth will create new problems like lack of parking and seating space, lack of volunteers, and a strain on financial resources.

A successful church will not be a problem-free church.

Success is a positive factor that can lead to conflict and disunity. A negative factor in the case of the Corinthian church I believe, was the influence of PERSONAL PREFERENCE. I believe that different groups of people likely aligned themselves with a particular leader in the church who they were naturally drawn to  – someone who understood their culture, someone from their own culture,  or someone they just liked more than the other leaders.

In church conflict today, personal preferences often create or escalate problems. What I have observed, is that as long as people take a stand based on personal preferences, there will never be unity. There will always be a winner and a loser.

THINK ABOUT THE CONFLICT THAT IS TROUBLING YOU

Could it be, that some of the problems and disunity in your church are caused by your church doing the right things?

Is your perspective being clouded by your own personal preferences?

Do you really want to leave your church with its problems to join another church with a different set of problems? After all, no church is perfect.

In the next blog post, I want to talk about staying power – how to stay in a difficult church when you would rather walk away.

 

 

Before You Leave Your Church – Part 1

I have met many Christians who have been active in a local church for many years who have left their church and are attending another one or who have given up church altogether. Others have not made the decision yet to leave but are contemplating it.

If you fall into either of these categories I urge you to stop and give this more thought.

There are many reasons people give for leaving their local church, such as:

  • Conflict in the church
  • Hurt feelings
  • Decline in attendance and few willing workers
  • Burnout from doing too much with too little support
  • Lack of interest in the congregation to reach those outside the church
  • A worship style they cannot relate to
  • Preaching that is not relevant
  • Lack of relevant programs for them or their family members
  • Too far to travel or too difficult to get to on foot or by public transportation
  • Physical discomfort (uncomfortable seats, poor sound system, music that is too loud, poor accessibility for those with mobility issues, not scent free)
  • Congregation is not welcoming
  • Not enough opportunities to serve or use their spiritual gifts
  • Doctrine, practices or future plans that they do not agree with
  • Lack of good and godly leadership

Fortunately in Canada, if you are not happy with your church there are usually other churches in the area to choose from. Unfortunately, many people leave their church when it would be better for them and for the church if they stayed.

Sometimes it is right to leave your church but most of the time people leave for the wrong reasons.

In this and upcoming posts, I would like to explore reasons to stay and reasons to leave, starting with reasons to stay.

THE CHURCH – FAVORED BY GOD

I would urge you to consider how the church is different from all other organizations and institutions. Take schools and hospitals for example. We consider them essential for our wellbeing and for healthy communities. As important as they are, though, there is no scriptural mandate to build educational or medical facilities. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t build them. My point is, that of all the organizations and institutions that we consider essential, there is only one that the Bible tells us to establish, and that is the local church.

Jesus declared that He would build His Church and that nothing, not even the gates of hell will overcome it (Matthew 16:18 NLT). The Church will endure. It is favored by God. It is His idea. This is the universal Church made up of all believers.

It is in the local church that we are to experience what God intended in the Church. The local church is God’s chosen vehicle for nurturing believers and reaching the lost. It is His Plan A. He has no Plan B.

Jesus loves the church and has called the church into being for His glory and His purposes. It is unlike anything man has created.

Consider three analogies the Bible uses to describe the church:

A. Household of faith (Ephesians 2:19, Galatians 6:10)
B. Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-30)
C. Bride of Christ (John 3:29, Revelation 19:7)

I would like to explore these images of the church in future posts but take a moment to reflect on them. Can you think of any invention of man that can come even close to the beauty, wonder and uniqueness of the church? The church is truly amazing!

Perhaps you are thinking that the beauty and theology behind the church you understand. It is the reality of the church that you can’t stand!

THE CHURCH – FLAWED BY MAN

In spite of her calling, the local church is far from perfect because it is made up of people like you and me! Read the New Testament and you will read of churches that had serious flaws. However, the apostles never gave up on these flawed local churches, as frustrating as they were.

In Matthew 13 Jesus tells a parable that gives me hope and helps me to be more patient with the local church. He tells of a farmer who has a field of wheat. An enemy plants weeds in his wheat field. When the farmer’s servants ask if he wants them to pull up the weeds, the farmer replies,

No, because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest.” (vv.29,30)

Jesus knew the church would not be perfect. In spite of its flaws, His favor is upon it. If He has not given up, perhaps we should reconsider before walking away.