This has helped me. I pass it along to any young preachers out there looking for free advice.
When you come to a passage there are four things you can do:
illustrate, defend, explain, apply. I rearranged the order from
seminary class so the four points make a convenient acronym: IDEA. Most
young preachers, and probably most preachers in general, gravitate
toward "explain." We do best at studying the text and communicating
what we learned to others. If the passage is especially obscure or
controversial, it makes sense to land heavy on the E. But sometimes the
passage is relatively simple. In this case, don't spin your wheels on
endless word studies that basically repeat with synonyms what everyone
can see immediately in the text.
Most preachers, myself included, need to incorporate the I, D, and A
more often. One note on the D while I'm at it: it is rarely wise to
spend a lot of time defending what your people don't need defended. For
example, in most churches you can probably skip the 15 minute intro on
the Pauline authorship of Ephesians. Likewise, don't waste time
defending your interpretation against esoteric objections in the
commentaries that no one in your church would ever think of.
"Illustrate" and "apply" are the hardest to do well. It requires a
different part of your brain. You need to think creatively. You need to
imagine what your people are or might be going through. You need to
avoid the temptation to offer quick sermony points of application like
"Don't let money be your idol" or "Some of you need to trust God with
your time." Probe deeper. Use one good, personal illustration or one
concrete point of application rather than firing application-buckshot
with little imagination.
So remember, for every text and every point you can illustrate, defend, explain, or apply. It's an IDEA whose time has come.
The elders are essential to congregational care and oversight. This
should be obvious, because elders, by definition, ought to be caring
for the sheep and exercising oversight. Our elders do this in a few
First, we pray for people. We pray when called up. We seek to pray for
people when they need help. And we pray for our people at our elders
meetings and retreats.
Second, our elders oversee our growth groups. Ben is the point man, but
most of our elders--a couple elders are excused because they are
involved in our executive committee--are responsible for overseeing a
few growth groups each. This does not mean they lead a group in their
home, though they can if they want. Oversight means two things. One,
it means that the elders come to the every other month growth group
leaders training session and meet with the leaders under their care.
This is a time to trouble shoot, hear how things are going, and pray.
Two, oversight means that the members of the leaders growth group (see
previous point) are in the elder’s district (see below).
Third, we divide the church into elder districts. The district is first
of all assigned by growth groups. So if Larry oversees two leaders, Moe
and Curly, then Larry has all the members of Moe and Curly’s growth
groups in his district (man is that a rough district). The elder
district also includes members not in a growth group and regular
adherents of the church who, for whatever reason, have not joined.
These names, non-growth group members and adherents, are assigned
alphabetically. The elder is responsible to pray regularly for his
district, and he must make contact with each person in the district at
least once a year.
We do not expect the elders to personally disciple the people in their
districts or know everything going on in their lives. This is why we
have growth groups. But the elder usually has a good feel for the major
issues that have surfaced. Our elders meet twice a month. The second
meeting of the month is our normal business meeting. At this meeting we
always ask “who is in need of spiritual help and/or is not making
faithful use of the means of grace?” Follow up calls are usually
assigned based on the district someone is in. Three times a year we do
a thorough review of our districts as an entire elder board.
We are blessed to have an active and capable diaconate. At University
Reformed Church, we have deacons and deaconesses. They care for many of
the physical needs of the congregation, especially those that are long
term. So, for example, when a member of the church was diagnosed with
ALS, the diaconate helped to arrange a group of recruits to come over
on Saturdays and take Don out around town.
The diaconate is also where I turn first when people come to me with
financial problems. Often I’ll get people from in our church or outside
of our church who come to the pastor wanting physical or monetary
assistance. When this happens, I try to assess the situation, pray for
them, and then put them in contact with either the chair of our
diaconate or the on-call deacon/ess of the month.
Last, but certainly not least, the congregation cares for the
congregation. This includes meals to new moms, one-on-one mentoring,
D-groups (where our college student leaders meet in the homes of church
families), making use of the email prayer chain, free babysiting,
hospitality, and a thousand other good things that people in most
churches do for each other.
Do we have weaknesses? Absolutely. We don’t have a system in place for
making hospital calls. Historically, the church I serve has been very
young and there hasn’t been much visitation to do. But this will change
and we need a better way to do it. Likewise, only recently have we
developed funeral policies and a plan for elders to make follow-up
bereavement calls (after six months have passed). This year we added a
part time biblical counselor to our staff. His work with counseling and
training other counselors is critical. In the near future, I’d also
like to see us (me!) use the congregational prayer on Sunday morning as
a more effective means of pastoral care.
So like any church, we are a work in progress. We will never get to a
point where everyone is cared for just right and there are no more
cracks for people to fall through. But we’ve made big strides in the
past several years. I’m thankful to work with so many wonderful people
who serve the body so well, often better than I can. By God’s grace
we’ve got some things in place.
In closing, let me say I’m always surprised to learn how few churches
actually take member care seriously. You don’t have to do things just
like we do, but every church, and every elder board in particular,
needs to think and pray carefully about how, and if, they are really
caring for one another and fulfilling the responsibilities and
privileges God has given them. We are required by our denomination’s
Book of Church order to ask at our elders’ meetings, “who is in need of
spiritual care and/or not making faithful use of the means of grace?”
It’s a good policy. But I wonder how many churches in our denomination
or yours regularly ask this question. And I wonder how many churches
have any mechanism in place to know who these people are and how to
help them once they are identified.
We aren’t a model church by any means, but one of the things we’ve worked on a lot over the past five years is how we do congregational care and oversight. Even though we have a lot to learn, I thought a glimpse at how we do things might help other churches out there. Obviously, I’m not encouraging you to copy everything we do (though feel free). But maybe some of our trellis work can you help you with your vine work.It’s impossible to completely describe how we do member care because, as in any church, there is so much ministry that happens outside of an official program or avenue. There’s a whole bunch of ministry that I never hear about, which is as it should be. But in an effort to simplify and generalize, let me explain what we do under five headings.MembershipWe stress membership at our church. There are a number of reasons for this, but one of them is very practical. Membership helps us care for people. Without membership it is hard to know who is really a part of our church and who is passing through or just floating around. But when someone joins the church we know this person is committed to our body and we need to be committed to him.What does the membership process look like at University Reformed Church? Two or three times a year we offer a 10 week membership class. This is taught by our Associate Pastor, Ben Falconer, and other leaders he brings into the class. The class covers a lot of material, including our theology, our statement of faith, our membership covenant, our polity, our ministries, spiritual disciplines, spiritual gifts, and how to get plugged in to the church. Ben does a great job of individually asking folks to consider taking the class, whether they plan to join or not. In my experience, people will not take a membership class unless (1) they know membership actually means something, (2) membership is talked about, at least once in awhile, from the front, and (3) they are personally invited.At the end of the class everyone signs up for an elder interview. We usually meet with people in elder teams of two or three. The interviews run about 30 minutes. Some questions always get asked: How did you become a Christian? Why did you come to our church? Who is Jesus Christ? What do you believe about the Bible? What is the gospel? We try to make the interview as non-threatening as possible. Most often it is a time to get to know new people (and they their elders) and celebrate God’s grace in their lives. Sometimes, however, we need to meet with people again. We will delay their membership if we feel like they aren’t ready, but this is rare.Growth GroupsA few years ago, the elders decided to make growth groups (i.e., small groups or home groups or cell groups or whatever you call them) a central part of our church’s ministry strategy. I’m not sure of the exact figure, but I would guess around 70% of our members are in a growth group (we have about 300 members; we had 450 in worship last Sunday).Every church does small groups a little differently. Our groups, most of which meet every other week, focus on assimilation and fellowship. This isn’t to say they don’t have content or that we don’t care what they teach. We know what they are doing, but we don’t dictate what they do. Most groups work through books or books of the Bible. But we don’t look to growth groups as a main teaching ministry. Growth groups help new people find a place to belong and be known. They help people forge God-centered friendships. Growth groups are the first line of defense (and offense!) in loving one another.I already mentioned Ben, our associate pastor. He is invaluable in this whole area of member care, especially when it comes to growth groups. We tried doing a full-on growth group ministry with volunteers, but we found that even with our best volunteers driving the thing, it was hard to keep momentum going. So we put a staff person in charge of the ministry a few years ago. This was key. Ben recruits leaders, trains leaders, starts new groups, and actively plugs people into new or existing groups. Running an effective small group ministry takes constant care and attention. If you just start some groups and stand back, most of your groups will dissolve within three years. There needs to be someone responsible for keeping the ministry together and moving forward.Tomorrow: the final three headings (elders, diaconate, congregation), plus some concluding thoughts.
When Phillips Brooks famously defined preaching as “the communication of truth through personality” I do believe he was talking about your own personality and not someone else's. It has taken me awhile, but I finally feel like I have learned to be myself in the pulpit. Now whether this means my sermons are better or worse I can’t say. But being myself means my preaching is more genuine, more comfortable, and more sustainable. I know I have a lot to learn as a preacher, and I hope that ten years from now I’ll still get those awkward but true compliments–“your preaching has really improved over the years.” But at 32 I feel like I’m finally preaching the truth through my own personality.Like most young preachers, and not a few old ones, I’ve struggled to find my “voice” as a preacher. When I was in college I started devouring the Reformers and Puritans. Everything I read seemed to be either hundreds of years old or was translated hundreds of years ago. As a result, my writing (I wasn’t doing much preaching at the time) sounded like I was aiming for the “just translated from Latin” award. My sentences were often elephantine. The grammar was antiquated and there were simply too many words. A very fine professor who affirmed me in many ways challenged me to write for my own century, not for the century of my heroes. It was painful advice at the time. I wasn’t quite sure I trusted him. After all, wasn’t it a mark of piety to use words like “behoove” “calumny” and “obfuscate”? Well, it wasn’t. I need to be myself and not put on puritan-sounding airs. (Incidentally, my cousin, and classmate during college, had a wonderful t-shirt at the time that read “Eschew Obfuscation.” And he was the one with a girlfriend during all four years! Go figure.)In seminary I began to notice that many of my classmates sounded a lot like their homiletics professors. I still find this to be truth. It doesn’t matter where you go, preaching profs seem to crank out clones. Some of the blame may rest with instructors who place too much emphasis on their way of preaching–usually a way that works great for the teacher but doesn’t fit all the students. But some of the blame rests on the students too. We are desperate to latch on to some model so we end up copying wholesale what we see in those we respect, especially in those teaching us preaching. At Gordon-Conwell I saw lots of mini-Haddon Robinsons. This doesn’t mean all those students will turn out to be bad preachers, but they must realize there is only one Haddon Robinson. And they’re not it!As much as I was blessed by Robinson’s sermons, I was more tempted to imitate other preachers. I’m sure that for the first years of my ministry I sounded at times like a (very) poor man’s version of John Piper. I was listening to so much Piper that I’m sure my prayers, my themes, and even the way I said “Joy!” was Piperesque. Don’t get me wrong, I make no bones about learning from Piper and being influence by him. I’d trade my sermons for his any day. But he’d probably be the first to say, “Preach the same gospel I preach. But you don’t have preach just like me.” It’s taken me several years, but I think I’m finally ok with not being John Piper. I just don’t think I have the same personality, let alone the same gifts.Along the way there have been other famous preachers I’ve wanted to emulate. I wish I could walk through a text and use humor like Alistair Begg (with the accent too, of course). I wish I were as creative in my thinking and as culturally attuned as Tim Keller. I’d love to be as funny and humble as C.J. Mahaney. I’ve wondered at times what it would be like to do in-your-face as well as Driscoll, or be as smart as Carson (I tried saying "Eye-Ziah," but no one was fooled). Hey, I’ve even thought how cool it would be to communicate as cooly as Rob Bell.Over the years, I’ve experimented with several different methods of delivery. I’ve preached without notes, with a half page of notes, and with a full manuscript because some preacher I love preaches each of those ways. But what works best for me and my style, at least at this point in my ministry, is to preach from a full set of notes that alternates between manuscripting and chicken scratch. Homiletics professors might hate me for saying this, but sometimes you just have to figure out what works for you. I’m sure there are certain principles that define all good preaching, but there’s also a whole lot “I’m not sure why, but this works for me.”Since 2002, the year I was ordained, I estimate that I’ve preached almost 500 times (we have an evening service). And I think it took about 450 sermons to find my voice. This isn’t to say all those sermons were bad or untrue to myself. It’s not like I faked a Scottish accent or told stories about growing up in Greenville, South Carolina. But it’s taken me this long to realize the wisdom of Paul’s confession, “By the grace of God, I am what I am.”One of the hardest things for any preacher to learn, especially young preachers, is to simply be yourself. Don’t put on someone else’s passion or humor or learning. And don’t take off your own personality because one of your heroes doesn’t share it exactly. Go ahead and learn from the best. But your congregation needs to hear you on Sunday, not an impression of the preacher you wish you were. Let your person constantly be refined by the Spirit of God, and let the truth of God’s word shine through your own personality. Preach as a dying man to dying men. And don’t forget to be your own man.