Recently I wrote a paper for my Honours on the doctrine of Sola Scriptura in the Modern Church and its Relationship to Church Tradition. If you are interested in reading it, you can view it at academia.edu.
Jeremiah 29:11 is a verse that has been used too often out of context. You see it on t-shirts, mugs, pens, Bible covers, etc. In the industry that I am in as a Christian retailer, one local South African supplier (not mentioning any names – but I am sure you know who I mean) plasters this, and other verses (e.g. Philippians 4:13), out of context, all over their merchandise, as though those verses relate directly to us.
Context is king, so let’s consider this passage:
First and foremost, Jeremiah clearly states who this message is for in verse 4, “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon” Clearly this verse was not written to individuals struggling with discerning God’s will or who to marry, but to a group of people in a specific situation – the nation of Israel whom God had sent into exile in Babylon.
But take a look at verse 10, “For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.” Here God is clearly stating the specifics of His promise within a particular time-frame. What follows then in verse 11 is the reason why God was going to do this – “For” in verse 11 is a purpose clause – with verses 12 to 14 spelling out more details of the promise in verse 10.
God was going to take Israel out of exile and restore the nation because this was God’s plan for the nation – He had a bigger plan in mind than what their futile minds could possibly imagine while living under the iron fist of the Babylonians. This is a far cry from the modern interpretation of this verse of using it to find God’s specific purpose for our individual lives.
One final thing: in verse 11, the “you” is not singular, but plural. And you don’t have to be a genius to figure out that one verses many makes a big difference.
So what now? Am I saying that this verse does not apply to us at all? Not at all. God is still in control and He does have plans for each one of us. The question though is, does this verse apply to me as it stands? The answer is both – yes and no.
Firstly we need to make sure that the Bible speaks into our lives and not us speak into it. Exegesis and correct application instead of eisegesis and “eise-application.”
Since Jeremiah 29:11 is speaking to the nation of Israel as a whole and not just one person, then this should be our starting point. God was speaking at a particular point in time, to a particular group of people, for a particular reason. In this case, to the nation of Israel, in exile in Babylon, for the purpose of restoring them as a nation in their homeland.
If you read on in the Old Testament you will see that each of these promises were fulfilled during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. They returned to their land, rebuilt the temple and the city walls, and the nation was restored. The promise of this text is therefore fulfilled and does not directly apply to us today – as non-Jews, living free, in our own homes and nations.
However, this is not the end of it, because this verse is revealing to us something of the character of God – that He is sovereign, in control, and that His plans will prevail – and therefore we can put our trust in Him, that the things He will do for us have a purpose far greater than we could ever dream or imagine. It gives us hope that the God who can control nations and restore a people group of thousands, if not millions, He can do the same for us in our communities, within our churches, and in our lives as individuals.
So, although this verse is often taken out of context and used by people to try and ascertain their paths of life, it does provide us with hope and trust in the God of the Bible. Even more important than our decision about marriage, career or education, is our decision about the God that we serve. The promise of Jeremiah 29:11 is not ours – to claim and apply directly to our lives – but the God who made the promise is.
Soli Deo Gloria!
Jesus first spoke of being born again in John 3.
Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus said to Him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.” (John 3:1-21)
We are all familiar with this passage, especially verse 16. Let’s unpack this a little. Firstly, we need to understand the context of the event. Back in John 2 we learn that Jesus was in Jerusalem, and while there, He cleansed the Temple by throwing everyone out that was corrupting the area by turning it into a business and dishonouring God.
In verse 23 we read, “Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name, observing His signs which He was doing.” So in chapter 3 Jesus is still in Jerusalem at the Passover, and we can safely assume that He stayed there for at least another week, because following the Passover was the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which lasted another week. So He was there for a couple of weeks, at least. And according to verse 23, He’s performing miracles, called signs by John; probably healing the sick, casting out demons and such, things that marked His entire earthly ministry, and they were so convincing that many believed in His name.
However, this faith was not saving faith, and that becomes clear in verse 24, “But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them.” In Greek, the verb used for entrusting in verse 24 is the same verb used for believing in verse 23. Another way you could say it is, “Jesus was not believing in their believing,” or “He had no faith in their faith.” In other words, He knew that it wasn’t saving faith; it wasn’t full faith; it didn’t have enough content.
How did He know that? The rest of verse 24 and verse 25 tell us, “for He knew all men, and because He did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man.” Jesus knew that they did not truly believe in who He was – that He is God, the Messiah – but merely in His teachings and powers. This becomes more apparent in the story of Nicodemus.
So let’s quickly look at the man. Who was Nicodemus? He is introduced in verse 1 as a Pharisee. The Pharisees were the religious leaders of the day, but as we learn through the Gospels, they were literally hypocrites. They were models of what true hypocrisy is. Jesus condemned them in Matthew 23, calling them sons of hell who produce more sons of hell, and repeatedly calls them hypocrites and pronounces damnations and curses on them, one after another. They tell people to do things that they were not willing to do themselves. They put burdens of legalism on people. They were phonies; frauds described by Jesus as whitewashed tombs on the outside, but inside full of corrupt dead men’s bones. Nicodemus was one of those.
But more than that, we also learn in verse 1 that he was a ruler of the Jews, in other words, a member of the Sanhedrin – the ruling group, or government if you will, made up of seventy men, who made many important decisions regarding the law – and to be in that group meant that Nicodemus was more than just a Pharisee, but was very intellectual and had climbed the ladder of Biblical knowledge and regarded as a superior teacher. Maybe he was even the main or chief Rabbi at the time. This could be why Jesus referred to him in verse 10 as the “the teacher of Israel.”
So here is Nicodemus, extremely religious and well studied, yet living the life of a hypocrite, and he comes to Jesus by night. Why is this significant? Well, he obviously realised that something was wrong and he needed clarity from Jesus about it, but he dared not come in the daylight, so like any hypocrite would, he goes to Jesus secretly. We could say he was similar to those who try to be secret Christians – in front of the world, their friends and family, they are just like everyone else, but in private try to be good Christians.
In reality, Nicodemus had no relationship with God. He had no assurance of forgiveness and did not understand the Kingdom of God. Since the spirit of a man knows what is in a man (cf. 1 Cor. 2:11), maybe Nicodemus was thinking to himself, “I am a rabbi, yet I do not know the things this man is teaching. I cannot perform the signs he is performing.” He wanted to know more, but he did not want anyone else to know that he was going to Jesus to learn more.
In verse 2 he says to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” It is often taught that the we referred to here are the Pharisees or the Sanhedrin that Nicodemus was a part of, but in light of the context of what came before in chapter 2, it is actually far more than that. It refers to all that believed in Jesus’ teachings and miracles, but did not truly believe in Him.
So Nicodemus was speaking not only for himself but those others who were saying things similar to Nicodemus’ words in verse 2. They believed that He was a teacher, that He had come from God. Maybe that He was a prophet, but they were not saying that He was the Son of God, the long-awaited Messiah, the Saviour, Lord etc. That’s why this was not a saving faith.
This is some of the background, which brings us to Jesus’ response in verse 3, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” This is a strange answer to Nicodemus’ comment, but in light of chapter 2:25, that Jesus knew the inner thoughts of the people, Jesus was in effect answering what Nicodemus thought, what he really needed to hear, rather than just answer his voiced words.
This was not the answer Nicodemus would have expected. This was no “5 steps to Your Best Life Now” type of answer, but rather is was meaning a complete change. Even though he was a leader of the Jews and supposedly studied the Scriptures, what he really needed was nothing short of a complete overhaul of his life.
But he clearly did not understand Jesus’ words, that’s why in the next verse Nicodemus asks, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” So Jesus had to clarify His words by saying “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” He was not talking about a physical rebirth, but a spiritual one, what is technically known as regeneration – a rebirth where the one spiritual nature gives way and is replaced by a new one.
This is in effect what it means to be born again. But there is one important thing to consider here with this phrase. In the Greek, born again is in the passive tense, in other words this is something that is done to you. It is not something you can do yourself. Jesus is using an illustration here that is actually very easy to understand – that of childbirth.
When a baby is conceived and born, who is responsible for that? The parents right? The baby could not decide to be conceived or born. They were merely a consequence of what his/her parents decided to do. In the same way, you do not have anything to do with your spiritual birth either. It is something decided by God and not you. In fact, a better translation of the Greek is born from above. You are born from God, or by God.
Regeneration, or being born again, means then that you receive a new life, a new nature, a new mind from God, and that you make no contribution to it. Paul describes this changed nature in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” Being born again means that we are new creatures.
This is very instructive, and is actually very simple to understand. In short, Jesus is saying that for anyone to be able to see the Kingdom of Heaven, literally, to be able to participate in it, or to have a part in it, has to be regenerated from above. Whatever it is you may have accomplished in this life, whether it be lived a good, moral life, obeyed all the religious rules and practices, is all irrelevant because you cannot contribute anything to your spiritual rebirth. In the same way that you did not contribute to your physical birth, you cannot contribute to your spiritual birth.
A perfect illustration of this reality is found later in John, chapter 11 – the account of Lazarus.
Lazarus was a friend of Jesus and died suddenly due to an illness. He was in the grave, dead, for four days, when Jesus went to Bethany and rose Lazarus from the dead simply by calling out to Him, “Lazarus come forth.” At least that is what was seen on the outside of the tomb. But imagine what it was like in the tomb itself for a moment.
Lazarus had been dead four days. In fact, when Jesus asked them to remove the stone from the tomb, the people were hesitant because of the probable stink of the body. In the tomb, was there any movement on Lazarus’ part over the four days? No. Was he still walking around and was he able to eat or drink? No. If there was any chance that he was alive when they put him into the tomb, he would have certainly been dead at this point because he was wrapped up in his burial shroud and a person can only live for three days without water.
So when Jesus called out, “Lazarus come forth,” was it possible for Lazarus at that point in time to be able to respond? No. If it was possible for Lazarus to contribute anything to his resurrection, then why did he not raise himself before Jesus arrived? The only option is that Lazarus’ life came from outside of Himself – it came from Christ. That is why Jesus said here, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
Lazarus contributed nothing to his regeneration physically, and we too contribute nothing to our regeneration spiritually. Our spiritual life comes only from Jesus.
Why Is It Necessary to be Born Again?
But why is it necessary to be born again? Verses 16-21 give us the answer:
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.”
We so often quote verse 16 on its own and use it to teach the Gospel. Though you can do that, it should not actually stand alone. The reason I say that is twofold: firstly by the first word of the verse, for. This is what is known as a purpose clause. What is to come is an explanation, and not a stand-alone doctrinal statement. But an explanation of what? This is where my second reason comes in.
As I have already shown you, there is a larger context behind this. Nicodemus and others of his time believed that Jesus was a great man – that He was a good teacher and performed many miracles, that He was from God – but they did not believe Him to be the Son of God. Jesus here is in effect declaring the purpose for His coming. The people did not have a complete understanding of who He was, so Jesus was correcting that mindset. He was explaining that mental assent will not save, but whole-hearted belief in who He is as God, Messiah, Lord, etc. will.
But I am straying from my point a little. Notice the negative words and phrases in theses verses:
- perish (v16)
- judge (v17)
- he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (v18)
- men loved the darkness rather than the Light (v19)
- their deeds were evil (v19)
- everyone who does evil hates the Light (v20)
- fear that his deeds will be exposed (v20)
These are all words and phrases that illustrate the need to be born again. Without spiritual rebirth we would all perish, we would be judged, we would love darkness rather than light, be practitioners of evil and hating even God Himself. This is who all of us would be today if God had not stepped in.
Jesus actually reminded Nicodemus that he should have remembered this fact in the first place in verses 7 and 10, “Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’… Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things?” Jesus was reminding him of the Old Testament that speaks of all mankind living in opposition to God. For example:
“There is nothing reliable in what they say; their inward part is destruction itself. Their throat is an open grave; they flatter with their tongue.” (Psalm 5:9)
“The LORD has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside, together they have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.” (Psalm 14:2-3)
And in Exekiel 36 God tells the Israelites that they have a heart of stone that will be replaced by God with a heart of flesh. Paul picked up on these teachings later when he wrote the book of Romans, even quoting them. The reality is that man is living in opposition to God and does not even seek Him. He has no desire to be in a relationship with Him. Why? As Jesus said in verse 20, for fear that their evil will be exposed. Man wants to live doing his own thing, not answerable to God in any way.
Another thing that Nicodemus should have remembered, as is seen in Ezekiel 36 and other passages throughout the Old Testament, is that God was going to do something about it. Not man. Not the angels. But God Himself. God does not just point us to our sinful nature and leave us there with no solution. Nor does He tell us what is wrong and then give us a list of things we have to do to make it right. No, He does the work of regeneration Himself.
Here is what it says in Ezekiel 36:26-27, “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.”
Note the order there, first comes the new heart (being born again, regeneration) then comes the obedience or practices that we are to perform. He gives us the desire to do better. So in John 3 Jesus was in effect telling Nicodemus that his problem was not that he had not performed certain rituals or that he had not done enough to live a moral life that was acceptable to God, but rather that he needed to be born from above. God had to regenerate him before he could do anything else.
When Jesus told Nicodemus that he needed to be born again, his response should have been, “This is good news. This is what we have been waiting for. How can I be born again?”
So let’s answer that question ourselves: How are we born again?
How Are We Born Again?
The problem is that there is nothing we can do to be born again. It is impossible for us to do it. The good news, however, is that Jesus came to earth to make it possible. Through His life, death and resurrection, Jesus made the impossible, possible. He secured new life for His people.
Peter wrote, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:3-4).
Regeneration, being born again, is a one-sided act of God. We simply receive His gift. All we can do is to ask Him to make us born from above. But in all honesty, if that is your true desire, chances are God has already started the work of regeneration in you anyway. And all you can do is accept His gift of grace in faith.
What are the Benefits?
But what are the benefits of being born again? Well as we have already seen it makes us into new creatures. And in light of John 3 there are a few other things:
- eternal life (v16)
- saved through Him (v17)
- not judged (v18)
One final question to consider, which is actually connected with the benefits:
How Do You Know You Have Been Born Again?
Good question, since we do not walk around with a visible stamp on our foreheads to say we are, nor do we get to walk around with a halo around our heads or get some great superpowers. In short, it is not always easy to tell if someone has been born again.
But verse 21 gives us a good measure, “But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.”
First of all we have an inner desire to come to the Light. To stand before Christ. We want to read the Bible more, pray more, be in fellowship with other believers more.
But we also need to examine ourselves. We need to look for fruit in our lives. Regeneration always results in a visibly changed life. We will not change overnight, although sometimes certain things do change almost instantly. Instead at regeneration a process starts called sanctification that over time conforms us to be more like Jesus, and our desires change to be in line with His desires for us.
But this process of examining ourselves must not be done in isolation, instead we need to be part of a local church or group of people that are committed to our spiritual well-being. People who are not afraid to tell us that there is something in our lives that is not quite right and needs to change. People who will be witnesses to the fruit in our lives, whether good or bad, and help us to prune what does not belong and nurture that which does.
This in short is what it means to be born again.
I have always been a person who has used visual aids, and have found them particularly useful when working with children or teens. However, as I have recently been preaching behind a pulpit more, speaking primarily to adults, my opinion has changed. And this has been primarily due to an Expository Preaching Course that I recently attended. Since then I have been more observant in terms of seeing how people react when I or another pastor use PowerPoint, and also how the pastor and the ministry team use the PowerPoints. What follows are four reasons why I no longer use PowerPoint, and my related observations.
1) The Purpose of a Sermon
The first thing that I began to consider was what is the purpose of a sermon in the first place? Is it merely to give people information, or is it to encourage life change?
If it is merely to give people information, then a PowerPoint presentation is certainly going to do that. But isn’t the purpose of a sermon far more than that? Isn’t it about changing lives for the glory of God? Is it not a personal oral event, by one person, presenting the Gospel that has the power to salvation, to a group of people, listening? And if this is the case, which I strongly believe it is, then what benefit does a PowerPoint really have?
Now you may think it helps people to remember things more, such as the outline of your sermon, but I beg to differ. I personally remember more what is spoken in a sermon than what I see on a screen. I tested myself with this recently. I thought back to the most recent sermon I had heard and asked myself, “What do I remember from the PowerPoint?” The answer, nothing. Yes the main points of the sermon and indeed many verses were displayed, but I could not remember the specifics from the slides. Instead I remembered the words of the preacher and was even able to remember something that he had said that was incorrect. But whether or not it was on a slide – who knows?
If preaching is about changing lives, then having a brilliant PowerPoint should not have any affect in that regard in any way.
2) PowerPoint is Distracting
In watching a DVD of myself preaching I became increasingly aware that the congregation’s heads were turning and looking at the screen instead of their Bibles or me. Even when nothing had changed or was being displayed on the screen. In fact, I was reminded at the course, and I have experienced this in my own life, if you have a TV or screen in the room that you are having a conversation in, on average a person’s eye’s will look at the screen every seven to ten seconds, even if the screen is off. Test this for yourself the next time you are having a conversation in front of a TV.
I have also come to realise that screen after screen of Bible quotes actually makes the sermon a little more tedious. I recently observed this when watching myself on the DVD and when observing another pastor. We both referred to a number of passages right after each other, and by time we reached the fourth passage or so, I was saying to myself, “OK I get the point, move on now.” But when I just listened without looking at the screen, the passages seemed to flow better and the impatience disappeared.
As we were told at the course, if you are going to refer to a long portion of Scripture, then best have the people turn there. If just a short quotation, then just read it – no need to show it.
In short, the point here is that the congregation should have their eyes on you or their own Bibles and not a third party, i.e. a screen.
Now I can hear the objections already, “What about those that are at church and do not have Bibles with them?” Fair point, but then why don’t you as a church make Bibles available for those that do not bring their own? I have been in a church where the actual passage being preached from was projected on the screen and eventually what happened, and quite quickly I must add, was that no-one, except for the few leading in the service, brought a Bible to church any more. It made them lazy. And I can almost guarantee you, if they are not bringing their Bible to church and are not reading along with you, then they are not reading their Bibles at home either.
Rather follow the example that I witnessed at a friend’s church a few weeks ago. Just before they began their Bible reading for the day they asked if anyone did not have a Bible and needed a copy to read from themselves. Those that put up their hands, or should I rather say, the one who put up his hand, then received a Bible to read from for the service. The rest of the congregation, of which there were over 100 people, had their own Bibles.
Not putting the verses on screen will probably encourage more people to bring their Bibles to church so that they are not left out and can follow along. It also encourages personal Bible reading and helps people to learn to navigate their way around the Bible as you refer to passages that they probably would not ordinarily read on their own. When last did you read from Habakkuk in your quiet time?
Another way in which PowerPoint is distracting is when one uses long quotations from a book, such as a commentary or theological textbook. I understand the temptation here because how they say things can explain something far better than you could yourself, or it may pack a greater punch than what your words can. But there is a problem here, and it is one that you can apply to Scripture quotations too.
A person reads faster in their heads than you can reading out loud. On average about 20% faster. That means that before you are 80% of the way through reading the quotation as it appears on the screen, they are already finished. So if it takes you 1 minute to read it out loud, this gives them 12 seconds for their minds to wander. Yes they may be processing what they have read, but they are no longer listening to you. Add to this the tendency that many of us have while reading a long quote to interject in the middle with some thought of our own, while displaying the rest of the quote on the screen. If they are reading ahead, like I know I have done myself, they are no longer listening to you, and they may miss an important point you are making in the interim.
Rather, if you want to include something from a commentary or textbook, summarise or paraphrase what they say, and then if you want to quote them, select one short sentence or phrase that packs the punch, that gem you want them to remember – without displaying it of course. That way they are with you all the way, and not ahead, allowing their minds to wander.
3) It is Time Consuming
How much time does it take you to prepare your PowerPoint presentation? An hour? Two hours? More usually if you want the PowerPoint to be creatively done. Now imagine if that time was reallocated to actual sermon preparation. What would an extra two hours do to your sermon? Alternatively, if you are spending most of your time in the study and not with your family, what benefit would that time have if you were now spending time with your children? I don’t think I need to say any more.
But never mind your own time, what about the time of those running the presentation? Before the service they have to make sure your PowerPoint works, that it is displayed properly, etc. This tales time away from their preparing other necessary parts of the service such as the songs for the time of worship.
Even during the message itself. Their time is taken up making sure they display the correct slide at the correct moment in your sermon. Which would you rather have, them spending their time making sure your presentation is presented correctly, or actually in the Word, with you as you preach, getting the same benefit as the rest of the congregation? I know which I choose.
In terms of timing, I was witness to really bad timing during a recent service. The person who was operating the projection was way out of time with the pastor. On occasion they displayed the quotations or passages before the pastor got there, which distracted me as I was reading something different to what the pastor was saying. And the same was true for those slides that came too late. I was now backtracking myself as it were, and lost the flow of the sermon at that point.
Remember too, the person on the projector does not have your brain. They do not know exactly where and when you were thinking the slide is to come up, even if they have a full manuscript with the necessary slides marked in the right places. I have had this happen to me too. I noticed that a couple of slides were up too early because they picked up the wrong sentence in my message. This then became a little distracting even to me as I became aware of the projectionist constantly looking at the notes and the screen to see if they were on track. And the problem was aggravated for me by the fact that they had a screen facing the pulpit.
I can hear the objection now, “I use my own remote control to advance the slides.” OK, great, but what if accidentally you advance one slide too many, now you have to go back a slide. Or if you forget to advance so now you have to catch up. This in itself becomes a distraction for both you and the congregation, and it diverts your attention from effective delivery to effective multimedia management.
4) Do People Really Take Note?
This final point was the final blow that put the final nail into coffin as it were. I mentioned to my wife what was discussed at the preaching course regarding PowerPoint, to which her reply was, “I don’t even take note of the slides anyway.” For her, there is usually too much reading on a slide and could not be bothered to read along while the pastor is preaching. They are of little to no significance to her.
And I think the same can be said for many others. As I said in my first point, do people really remember anything from the slide, or do they remember your words? A verbal picture does far more than a ten bullet list of applications and implications. A well placed illustration does far more than a lengthy quote from a technical textbook or commentary.
After all, I am at church to hear the Word of God, to learn from it, and to be changed by it. As Paul said, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” I think this applies not only to evangelism, but also to every day preaching and discipleship.
One Final Question
So then, this leaves one final question: Is there a place for PowerPoint in a sermon? Well, yes, but it is very limited. Let me give you one practical example: You are dealing with a geographical or cultural issue that needs a picture to best explain it, such as the Exodus. It is good in such cases to give your congregation a visual picture as to the geography or terrain that the passage is set in. Not everyone has a visual picture in their mind of the size and shape of the land, so to show a map from an atlas may be good when introducing the context. But that is where you leave it. Show the slide only for that purpose and only at the appropriate time, and make sure the slide is taken off the screen during the rest of your sermon.
And, more importantly, don’t do it every time. Not every geographical or cultural situation needs an actual picture. Often-times a simple description will suffice.
For those of you who have been regularly using PowerPoint in your sermons, I challenge you to take a break from them and simply preach the Word of God. Do not allow yourself to become reliant on them, or to use them to preach for you, as I have witnessed some doing over the years. I have even known a few pastors to read their notes from the presentation on the screen instead of from their own notes or manuscript on the pulpit. This is even more distracting.
And if you are not yet convinced, spend some time in the pew observing others and their use of PowerPoint. Remember the points and observations I have been making and see for yourself if what I say has any truth to it.
Whichever route you take, PowerPoint or no-PowerPoint, the choice is yours. But for me, based on the foregoing points, I have decided to no longer use PowerPoint.
“And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ; having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” [Philippians 1:9-11]
Being in the industry that I am in, and having been involved in ministry in one form or another for over twenty years, I have seen my fair share of false teachings coming out. What follows are a few tips to help you in the area of discernment.
Context, Context, Context
Whenever a passage is cited or quoted, be sure to evaluate it in its original context. Take care to look at the context within the text itself, ie. those verses that come before and after the cited verse, as well as the historical context. This includes the writer, the original recipients, the time period in history, and various other cultural aspects. Often a verse is quoted and applied to your life today when originally it was never intended to be used in such a way.
A number of verses stand out in this regard, but I will refer to two by means of example:
Jeremiah 29:11 – “I know the plans I have for you” – This verse was never written for you, but for the nation of Israel and their time in Babylon. If you look at what they went through, I am sure you would not want those plans to be for your life.
Philippians 4:13 is another passage used – “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” – Again, unless you are in prison for the sake of the Gospel, this verse cannot be applied to your life and the troubles you are going through.
Be a Berean
The recipients of the Gospel in Berea did not take even the sayings of Paul for granted. As Luke tells us in Acts 17:11, “Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.”
Examine what teachers tell you. Examine what the author’s you read are writing. Do not take what they say for granted. This goes for everything that they say or write. Just because they were 100% correct the previous two years, does not mean that they are going to be correct today. Evaluate everything that they say. A number of well-respected teachers of today have changed their views from what they used to be in certain areas (eg. Gay rights, women priests, etc.), but if you do not evaluate their teachings thoroughly, you can easily miss it.
The first step in this regard is to get to know the Bible for yourself. The easiest way to spot false teaching is to know the truth in the first place. So study, study, and study some more.
Think Biblically and Logically
The Lord has given us everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). And it is all contained within His Word. But He has also given us His Spirit and our own brain in order to be able to reason things both Biblically and logically. If something does not make sense, then think it through. If logic tells you something is wrong, then maybe there is. But at the same time, there are things in the Bible that do not make sense logically, such as God’s sovereignty – Him being in control of everything – while at the same time we have to make choices for ourselves. The two conflict with each other in a logical sense, yet both are taught in Scripture.
So think things through logically, but at the same time, allow the Holy Spirit to direct your thinking in terms of what the Bible teaches. This again shows the importance on knowing God’s Word for yourself.
Beware of claims that what they are teaching is new information that has never been discovered or taught before. When it comes to interpretation of Scripture you must always remember that there is only ever one interpretation. It never means one thing to you and then something different to someone else. Though the applications may vary, the interpretation is always the same.
Often times the new interpretations are due to a wrong way of interpreting the Bible in the first place. There are many who try to allgorise everything, to make everything in the Bible is a symbol of something and therefore there is a deeper, more spiritual meaning. For example, David selected five stones from the river to kill Goliath. People have given this many different interpretations, saying that each of the stones meant something in a spiritual sense and that even Goliath himself has a twenty-first century spiritual meaning. As if the story of David and Goliath is not true, but is merely a story to teach us some spiritual truths. Beware of things like this. There are no hidden meanings in the Bible. Everything can be understood by anyone, even a child. There is nothing mystical or allegorical about it.
Judge Them by Their Cover
It has always been said, never judge a book by its cover. Well this is not true. In many cases a book can be judged by its cover. One tell-tale sign on a cover is when it tells you how many copies are in print. Though not always a negative sign, it can be an indicator of the popularity of the book. Usually, the more correct and convicting material is not popular. Even Jesus Himself was not popular in His day.
Another tell-tale sign is when they advertise on the cover that it is a New York Times best-seller. This is a secular publication. If they are calling a best-seller, who is buying it? Chances are that more secular people are buying it than true Christians.
Also, look at who endorses the book. If a known false or not-so trustworthy teacher is endorsing it, there could be something in it that is to be avoided. The publisher too could be an indication. Some publishers are well-known for bringing out dodgy titles, so if the book is published by one of them, beware.
The same tests can be applied to ministries and churches themselves. Their popularity, who endorses them, or what kinds of teachers they themselves endorse, are all indicators of where their theological bias lies.
Finally, be on guard for those that are seeking fame or fortune. Though we cannot judge their motives, often their desire for money and their name in lights is evident by what they say and what they do. Though they may have begun their ministries without these desires, when large amounts of money or great fame are in play, it can be difficult for people to resist the temptation.
I could say much more about discernment. There are many guidelines within Scripture of the things to look out for. Read the books of Jude and 2 Peter for example. But these five simple tips are a good place for you to start.
Before we can begin to look at the Biblical and theological basis for expository preaching we first need to have a basic, working definition of what expository preaching is. Mike Aben-droth, in his book, Jesus Christ: The Prince of Preachers, proposes the following definition: “a style or method of preaching God’s Word which seeks to logically expose the biblical text to the mind and the will of the congregation.” He then goes on to explain that it is the duty of the pastor who is preaching expositorily to “open up, uncover and lay bare” the truths of God’s Word and then to encourage the hearers to “obey the truth they have just learned.”i Though many other writers have proposed a number of other definitions of expository preaching, they are all rather similar to Abendroth’s definition. For this reason therefore, the above definition is the one upon which this study is based.
So where does one find expository preaching in the Bible? After all, the term itself does not appear anywhere in Scripture. However, though the term may not appear in the Bible, the practice certainly does.
Old Testament Examples
There are a number of examples in the Old Testament that clearly exhibit this practice as defined by Mike Abendroth. The following two examples should be sufficient for the purpose of this study to illustrate its use in Israel before Jesus’ birth.
Firstly, in Deuteronomy 33:10, Moses, in describing the duties of the Levites shortly before His death said the following, “They shall teach Jacob your rules and Israel your law; they shall put incense before you and whole burnt offerings on your altar.” Here Moses was reminding the people of Israel before their entering into the Promised Land that the Levites had a particular function. One part of their function, essentially repeating what had already been declared to them in Leviticus 10:11, was that of teaching the Law of God. A practice that continued throughout the history of the Jewish nation, right through to the time of Jesus.
This instruction was later repeated as a rebuke by God through the prophet Malachi shortly before the close of the Old Testament canon, “For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts” (Mal 2:7). Clearly this was something that God took seriously and to not obey this command was a serious offence.
Our second example can be found in Nehemiah 8:8, “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” This verse clearly shows that it is not just the reading of the Law that was important, but also the explaining of it so that there is no confusion by the hearers as to its meaning. Some debate has existed as to whether the phrase “gave the sense” is referring to explaining the text or to translating it into a language they understood. A debate that is somewhat irrelevant as the point remains, those who read the Law to the people took the responsibility of making sure that the people understood the text. Whether translated or explained, the people knew what the text meant. And as we see later in Nehemiah, at another reading of the Law, they applied something that they had heard in the text, “As soon as the people heard the law, they separated from Israel all those of foreign descent.” (Neh 13:3) Reading had become teaching, which was then applied by the hearers.
In both of these examples we see Abendroth’s definition coming to the fore.
New Testament Examples
In the New Testament there are also a number of examples that can be cited, so again two should be sufficient for the purposes of this study.
The first example is Jesus Himself. In Luke 24:27, while walking with the two men on the road to Emmaus, Jesus “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, … interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” Here Jesus was expounding the whole of Scripture to these men showing how He was a fulfilment of all that they already had been taught. From the writings of Moses, the Law, and all the prophets that followed, Jesus made sure that these men understood the Scriptures. When Jesus departed from them, after their eyes had been opened, they themselves testified, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32). Jesus’ clearly did not just quote Scripture to them, but explained the Scriptures to them which brought about conviction and deep understanding of the entire Old Testament.
The second example is the sermons of Peter and Paul in the book of Acts (Acts 2:14-21 and 13:16-47 respectively). In both of these cases Peter and Paul opened up the meaning of what was written in the Old Testament, and on both occasions, the people applied the teachings to themselves which brought about repentance.
BIBLICAL AND THEOLOGICAL BASIS
Other then the examples cited above, there are a number of passages in the Bible that clearly teach the principle of expository preaching as defined by Abendroth. Since half of the New Testament was written by the apostle Paul, it should be sufficient to look Paul’s own philosophy of preaching.
Paul’s Writings and Life
When Paul wrote his letter to the church in Rome he expressed his desire to visit them in order to “impart… some spiritual gift to strengthen… that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine… I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.” (Rom 1:11, 12 &15). Though this is not necessarily referring to expository preaching, there is a clear indication here that Paul desired to teach them the Gospel and not merely to share positive, feel-good messages.
In Paul’s next letter, Paul in no uncertain terms declared what the message of the Gospel was that he preached, “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23). As Robinson rightly says, “Preaching in Paul’s mind did not consist of a man discussing religion. Instead God Himself spoke through the personality and message of a preacher to confront men and women and bring them to Himself.”ii Too often preaching today offers little to no substance of the Gospel. Instead it offers nice-to-hear feel good messages that any secular motivational speaker can bring. When I consider both the Romans and 1 Corinthians passages, I have to agree with Mark Dever and Greg Gilbert who write, “…one of the most important things we do when we stand to preach is herald the good news of Jesus Christ. We make Christ known, and we make known the good news that salvation is to be found in Him. Just as Christian preaching should edify believers in Christ, it also ought to call those who do not yet believe to do just that. We should preach to evangelize.”iii
Later, towards the end of his life, Paul wrote to the young Timothy charging him, “in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus” to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim 4:1-2). Here Paul is using courtroom type language, and is expanding on the type of authority that Timothy had as a preacher. Authority that goes beyond merely reading God’s Word, but authority to reprove, rebuke and exhort his congregation. Let us look a little closer at these words.
Reproof helps the hearers to be able to discern what sin is and what it is not. It is therefore the preacher’s responsibility to inform and assist the listeners to properly understand what God’s Word says about sin and repentance. But it is not enough to just hear about what sin is, it has to be taken further. This is where rebuke comes in.
Rebuke takes reproof one step further in that it attaches ownership to the sin that one has been reproved of. It convicts the sinner by making is personal.iv Where reproof defines the sin, rebuke does what Nathan’s words did to David by saying, “You are the man!” (2 Sam 12:7), you are the guilty party. Again, the hearers cannot be left at this point with no direction as to what they are to do next. It has to lead to exhortation.
Exhortation gives the reproof and rebuke application. It urges and encourages the sinners to repent. Compared to reproof and rebuke which are somewhat negative in nature, exhorting is positive. A good example of this from Paul’s own life is given in 1 Thessalonians 2:11-12, “For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.”
In fact, nowhere do we find a better exhortation to preach in this manner than Paul’s visit to Thessalonica. In Acts 17:2-3 Luke wrote, “And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.'”
It is interesting to note the words that Luke used to describe Paul’s approach to preaching. Firstly, the word translated as “reasoned” is the Greek word dialegomai. This is a compound word made up of a preposition meaning “through” and a verb meaning “to speak.” Paul’s approach here was to speak through the Scriptures.v It implies not just reading them, but expanding on them.
Luke then goes on to tell us that Paul went on the explain the Word to them. The word translated as “explaining” is the word dianoigo, which again is made up of the preposition “through,” but this time coupled with the verb meaning “to open.” Therefore we see that Paul not only preached through the text, but actually opened it up in an explanatory way.vi
Along with speaking through and opening up the Scriptures, Paul also proved that Jesus died and rose again. The third word Luke used here is paratithēmi, which means to place alongside.vii This is legal language similar to what a lawyer would do in a court of law, to lay out the evidence alongside in order to support his case. In the same way, Paul was laying out the evidence to support his message.
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?
But why is all of this important? Is it not enough to just hear the Bible read to us and allow the Holy Spirit to do the work? Why can I not just preach or listen to sermons that make me feel better, that provide encouragement rather than make one feel guilty? In the words of a pastor in a medium-sized church in Johannesburg, “I come to church feeling like a dog. I do not want to leave it feeling like a whipped dog.”
The truth of the matter is that we are living in a society where preachers seem to be more interested in reasoning with their hearers through philosophy, popular psychology, current events, motivational speeches, the super-natural, and by providing what itching ears want to hear (2 Tim 4:3). As Mark Dever writes in his book Twelve Challenges Churches Face: “No one is looking for the one true God to be incarnate and to bear our sins as a substitute by dying the death of an outcast traitor. So when the church begins to peddle a message by what pleases the world, of course the true gospel will be de-emphasized or compromised, if not actually replaced.”viii
This is a fast track downhill, but one way this can be avoided in the church is to preach like Jesus and the apostles did. Preachers today need to be like Paul who “spoke through,” opened up the Scriptures, and gave evidence to support what he was saying.
We are living in an age of post-modernism where people are not wanting to hear the truth. They desire rather to hear what pleases them and makes them feel good about themselves. As a result, many a pastor has shrunk back from declaring the whole counsel of God, and from preaching expositorily. Rather thematic and topical sermons, or sermons about the heroes of the Bible are preached, with seven step programmes on how to be better people or forty days to a better you, being the main thrust of the message. From the few examples we have seen in this short study, this is not the pattern we see presented by Jesus, the early church leaders, nor even by those in Old Testament times.
Our ministries, and our preaching, need to echo the testimony and charge of Paul to the elders from Ephesus in Acts 20, “And when they came to him, he said to them: ‘You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.'” (Acts 20:18-27)
Unlike many behind the pulpit today, Paul did not “shrink from declaring … anything that was profitable.” Nor did he “shrink from declaring … the whole counsel of God.” As a result, he was “innocent of the blood of all.” Paul had fulfilled the commission entrusted to him when Ananias laid hands on him in Damascus (cf. Acts 9:15-16) – he had proclaimed the Gospel to the gentiles in its fullness. This mandate is just as valid today as it was back then, for any man who calls himself a preacher, pastor or teacher in the church. It is a great responsibility, which as we have seen is important to God. The cost is too high for us to neglect the declaring of the Gospel in its entirety. We must ensure that our hearers not only hear, but also understand the whole counsel of God.
iMike Abendroth, Jesus Christ: The Prince of Preachers (Leominster: Day One Publications, 2008), 145.
iiHaddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1980), 18.
iiiMark Dever & Greg Gilbert, Preach [Theology Meets Practice] (Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Publishing, 2012), 57.
ivJohn MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Commentary (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 1813.
vO.S. Hawkins, The Pastor’s Guide to Leading & Living (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2012), 25.
viiJames Strong, Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible: Greek Dictionary of the New Testament (James Strong, 1890), 73.
viiiMark Dever, Twelve Challenges Churches Face (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2008), 29.
Since I have had the opportunity to do some guest preaching lately, I thought I would share a few tips based on my experiences that may help those of you who may be given the opportunity too.
I. Know Your Audience
I think this is probably one of the most important aspects. So often visiting pastors come in with their own agenda or way of preaching that differs, or is not appropriate, to the church that they are visiting. Therefore it is good to ask questions beforehand so that you can prepare your sermon accordingly.
1. Ask what Bible translation is generally used – If people are following along in their own Bibles they like to follow in the same version that the preacher is using. People tend to lose track when following along in the ESV when the pastor is preaching from the KJV for example. The word order and style differs. Refer to other translations by all means in order to expand on the text, but it is better to use the same translation that the rest of the congregation generally uses as your main translation.
2. Ask about the demographics of the congregation – Such as how many generally attend the service, how many of them are members or regulars, ages, employment status, students, financial status, and cultural background. This will give you an indication of how your audience will respond to your message. To preach a message about life in the workplace for example, may be inappropriate to a congregation made up of mostly unemployed and retired folks. The message needs to be relevant to the life situations of the congregation. How you would address a young church would also be different on how you address a church of retirees.
3. Ask about their theological position and the general Bible knowledge of the congregation – This is something that will help you to determine if it is indeed a church you would feel comfortable preaching in and whether or not you would like to be associated with them. And to know what there general Bible knowledge is like will help you to know how much explanation you may need to do when it comes to referring to particular passages or events in the Bible and how thorough your explanations of certain theological doctrines may have to be.
4. Do the children attend the service or do they go out to Sunday School – Though you are not necessarily going to be preaching to the children, this will help you to maybe include things in which the children could relate to so that they too also leave having gained something from God’s Word. It will also help you to prepare yourself for any unexpected disruptions by a niggly child during the service.
II. Be Courteous
No one likes to be treated or spoken too in a rude manner. This is something that is especially appropriate to your calling as a pastor. There are a number of ways in which we can show courtesy to the churches that we visit.
1. Never be late, and never leave early – I was in the artillery and the motto of the artillery is “First In, Last Out,” and this has unconsciously become how I generally operate in life. Though we must not go this extreme when it comes to visiting other churches, as to do so would be rude too, it is good practice to make sure that we are not late in arriving at the church. Be there at least half an hour before the service. This allows you to speak to those running things in the background so that you can give them your Powerpoint presentation and make sure it works, or even to maybe make changes the order of the songs so that they fit more appropriately with your message (though this latter one is good to prepare before the day arrives, if possible). And, as is often the case, the elders or pastor of the church may want to pray with and for you before the service.
Also, never be in a rush to leave. To leave as soon as you finish shows that you were only there to speak from behind the pulpit and are not be interested in the people themselves. Spend some time chatting the the people. Have a cup of coffee with them and relax. Let them see that you are a person just like then and that you are not high and mighty over them behind a pulpit. As much as is possible, try to leave your calendar open for the few hours after the service too. Who knows, maybe someone in the church had planned on inviting you around for lunch afterwards.
2. Honour the host pastor and those involved in the service – Thank them for giving you the opportunity to share God’s Word with their flock. Compliment them on the church building, its atmosphere, maybe an up coming or past event. Pastors should not be blowing their own horns, but when you compliment them in front of their own congregations, it shows that congregation that you respect and appreciate their pastor. It may even give the congregation an opportunity to show that appreciation for their pastor too if they applaud or say “Amen” when you pay the compliment.
Be sure to also thank those that work behind the scenes. Thank the worship team for their efforts, the projectionist for putting up your Powerpoint presentation, the sound engineer for making your voice heard, and even those on tea duty. Show some gratitude to everyone involved in the service, whether privately or from the pulpit, it does not matter. It shows your respect for them doing whatever is necessary in making your time there effective.
3. Introduce yourself – especially the first time you preach there. Fill them in on some of the basic details of who you are and your background. Things like when you came to know Christ, your marital status and whether or not you have children (be sure to give their names from the pulpit), where you studied and when, your previous career if you had one, where you are fellowshipping/pastoring now (include greetings from your home church), and the like. Be brief, and do not boost yourself up and blow your own trumpet – No one likes a bragger behind the pulpit. All you are doing is giving yourself some credibility to speak, letting people know why you are qualified to stand in front of them and share God’s Word with them.
4. Respect the time limit – Some churches have 45 minutes allocated to the sermon, others only 30 minutes. Be sensitive to this, whether or not you agree with their reasons for it. That church has allocated those times for a reason so stick to them. If it means cutting out an illustration or two, or not covering as many details about verses as you would like to have, rather err on the side of being shorter rather than longer. But not too short. To deliver a sermon of only 10 minutes when 45 minutes has been allocated shows that you have not properly prepared and possibly do not take the responsibility seriously.
5. Dress respectfully – It is a good rule of thumb to wear a collar and tie. If the church or service turns out to be more casual than what you are used to, then all you need do is remove your tie and open the top button. Wearing a tie is a sign of respect. People will be looking up to you and how you present yourself on the day is noted. To wear a vest and shorts would be highly disrespectful, and indeed so would any dress code that is not relatively smart. Wearing a blazer is not essential, maybe a jersey or cardigan would be suitable if it is cooler weather, but it may be a good idea to carry a blazer with just in case. Either a long or short sleeve shirt is fine, and in a neutral colour is perfect. The same goes with the tie. No Mickey Mouse ties. Especially the first time you visit.
6. Honour the text or topic you are given – It is tempting to want to preach on whatever topic is your flavour of the month, but do not give in to this temptation. No matter how difficult or controversial the topic, do your best to prepare the sermon accordingly. Unless they tell you that you can preach on whatever you wish, stick to their request. And even if you are free to preach what you want, ask them if it is OK to preach a particular topic or text. They may have recently covered it and do not need to hear it again so soon, or it may be one that the congregation may not be ready for as their pastor is leading them in a particular direction in terms of their discipleship. And respect their answer. This is not an opportunity to blow your own trumpet or to jump onto your own hobbyhorse and stir, leaving them with issues that have to be addressed after you are gone.
7. Accept compliments and criticisms graciously – People will always say to you that they enjoyed your sermon even if they did not. After all, you are their guest and they do not want to upset you or be rude to you. They will tell you how good it was in terms of delivery, illustrations, tone of voice, etc, even if it was absolutely rubbish. No matter how genuine their compliments or criticisms are, accept them graciously. Do not let things go to your head – it is not about you, it is about God’s Word and its impacting and changing people’s lives.
But at the same time do not be falsely humble and reply, “It was nothing,” or “All glory goes to God.” Though the latter is true, it comes across as false humility most of the time. Simply say “Thank you” for any compliment. Nothing more, nothing less. If it is a criticism, say, “Thank you. I will certainly think about that.” Do not try to defend yourself or argue your point. This is not the time or place to do that. Especially if it happens while you are at the door greeting people as they leave.
III. A Good Habit
A good habit to get into in order to get a feel for the congregation and the style of preaching that they are used to is to try and visit the church prior to the day you are to preach, on a normal Sunday when their normal preacher is preaching. This has a number of benefits in each of the areas I have already mentioned above.
1. You will know what translation is being used without even having to ask. You will know if they use pew Bibles and how many people actually bring their own. Even how many people actually turn to and follow along as the passage is read. It gives you a feel for the church demographics, the culture, languages, ages, etc. It gives you an indication of their theological position and understanding of the Bible and the style of preaching that they are used to.
2. Visiting beforehand will give you a clearer picture of the order of service, traditions, what their projection facilities are like and whether you will be using a hands-free, hand-held or even no microphone. You will know how their pastor dresses so you can dress accordingly, the layout of the building, where would be a good place to sit do that you are free to move up to the front without hindrance, etc.
3. Finally, visiting beforehand shows the pastor and the church that you are taking the responsibility seriously. That you are genuinely interested in them and that you are going to do the job to the best of your ability.
It is not necessary to have your sermon prepared before you visit, but personally I find it does help to have already done some preparation. You already know the direction and basic flow of your sermon, and it is often easier to change, remove or add things afterwards than to try and prepare a whole new sermon based on what you have observed and learned during your visit. Another reason why I prefer to have done some preparation is if someone asks me during my visit what I am going to be preaching on. It shows the person asking that you are prepared and are not leaving things to the last minute, that you take your responsibility seriously.
IV. Follow Up
Finally follow up. Contact the person who invited you and give them some feedback on how the day went. Maybe a person came to you and sought some counselling on an issue which you encouraged them to speak to their pastor about. Depending on the issue you may not necessarily give the pastor all the details, to do so will betray that person’s trust and they may not speak to you the next time you visit, but at least give the host pastor enough information to keep an eye on, and maybe to prepare himself to be able to counsel, that person at a later stage. People may also have asked some pertinent questions on your sermon that the host pastor may need to be aware of for a follow up message.
It is also a good habit to ask the host pastor for some follow up from him in terms of your theology, delivery, people’s response, if and where you can improve, etc. This shows humility and that you are willing to learn and change where necessary. Any feedback you receive in this regard will be valuable as it will be a new pair of ears, from another pastor. All too often the people within our own congregations will not tell you what is wrong with your preaching in order not to offend you. They may try and correct your doctrine, but they often do not tell you there was something wrong in your delivery unless it was something that seriously offended them. They will be more inclined to tell someone else first. So treasure the comments from the other pastor and make changes if and where necessary.
Though these tips do not cover all aspects when preaching as a guest in another church, I hope that they give you some direction for your own ministries. By applying these few tips when next you are invited to preach at another church, you will immediately become more effective and respected as a guest pastor. Who knows, maybe you will even be invited back.
Feel free to share any further tips or comments.