A Few Thoughts on Sermon Illustrations

preach-from-bibleI am thoroughly enjoying the new blog put out by some friends over at ministrydudes.com. It’s good, practical content for ministry, and I find it helpful for me as a rookie pastor. So, if you’re in the same boat, go check out their stuff.

Recently Marc Neppl wrote a post titled “3 Sermon Illustrations You Should Throw Away.” I asked if i could respond to his post here as it gave me a few thoughts I’ve been considering about illustrations that originated by Bryan Chappell’s book Using Illustrations to Preach with Power. I must confess I don’t know Marc well at all. We’ve met at the NAFWB convention once. I have deep respect for him, however, as he is a church planter (something that scares me–a lot!) and he can surf (I’m one of the sissiest people ever when it comes to swimming–I still hold my nose when I go underwater). Marc, thanks for letting me give some thoughts in response to your post.

First, he made some good points about integrity when using illustrations. Some illustrations used claim to be factual when they aren’t. Bad deal. As Marc implied, telling a story while claiming it’s true could “damage our credibility” (keep in mind that half your congregation can google the story as you’re telling it!).

Also, he is right that illustrations do have an emotional impact on people. I agree that a sermon based entirely on getting people to make an emotional “decision” is likely misleading and unhelpful to people. Illustrations can be abused, and based on the post, it appears Marc has observed quite a bit of that.

I gather that Marc’s post is intended to warn against the dangers of illustrations being abused in preaching. I concur with those dangers. At the same time, I want to affirm some things I’ve been learning about illustrations, especially from Bryan Chapell’s book Using Illustrations to Preach with Power.

First, it’s not necessarily bad that illustrations have an emotional appeal to them. Chapell points out that people are not just thinking beings, we’re also feeling beings. Chapell said, “Not to control emotions is wrong, but not to experience emotions is warped.” I think he’s right. The goal in preaching is not simply to help people learn new information, it’s to help people experience God so their lives are changed. This includes informing and urging, convincing, prodding, and even motivating. Preaching void of emotion (using illustrations falls into this) is not preaching that engages the whole person.

Chapell continued to note that people need to “walk in” an idea before they made a decision. They need to picture themselves there. This is why colleges want potential students to visit the campus and why realtors work to show the house to potential buyers–those people are more likely to enroll or buy because they picture themselves in the new situation. As Chapell says, illustrations in sermons serve the same purpose. They help listeners picture themselves in the way God’s Word is urging them to live before they actually change. In turn, this helps them make the change they need to make.

This is not a lack of dependence on God’s Spirit to use God’s Word. Of course, it is only by these two things that anyone is changed. However, pitting dependence on God’s Word and effective communication against one another is a false dichotomy. Communicate as well as you can in the parameters that preaching allows, and completely depend on God’s Word and Spirit in the mean time, realizing it is God who creates by His Word. The gospel is what holds the power, but if people don’t understand our explanation of the gospel because of poor communication, then the power is held hostage.

I take Marc’s warning and affirm it. There are dangers in using illustrations as he has mentioned. I want to also mention that I don’t think that means we shouldn’t use illustrations, just that we should use them intentionally.

I welcome Marc’s feedback on this, as well as other preacher friends of mine as we think through this together.

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On Hell as Motivation

Golden-Eagle-Silk-Road-The-Door-to-Hell-in-Darvaza-TurkmenistanI’ve heard people tell me they got saved “because I didn’t want to go to hell,” only to affirm that decision as a false conversion.

You’ve likely heard of similar stories. I remember one time a man preaching about hell at 9am at a chapel service at camp . . . to a bunch of 10-year-olds. “Hell is hot, and you don’t want to go there.” Certainly true. Maybe not the best time of day to scare the crap out of a bunch of elementary age school kids though.

Often the stories I hear about people “getting saved” out of a fear of hell happened when someone was young. It does seem a little disingenuous, doesn’t it? You know, using hell as a motivator on the people whose imaginations are most vivid.

It’s easy to see red flags with this approach. Real conversion happens by God’s grace through faith. That’s not necessarily the same thing as praying a prayer because you don’t want to burn forever in hell. No one wants to do that. This approach can lead someone to have a false assurance. I’m sure there are other issues with this approach as well–not to mention there is no gospel in simply telling someone, “You don’t want to go to hell, do you!?! Muahahahah!”

However, lets not throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are numerous examples in Scripture of God’s coming judgment being used as a warning to motivate repentance. See the Ninevites with Jonah, Jesus in a few parables and other places, the entire book of Hebrews, and many other places.

Hell is a motivator, but it can be used as a displaced motivator. It can motivate someone’s selfish desires–“I don’t want to go to hell!”– without that person actually having a love for God Himself.

How then should we use coming judgment as the right kind of motivator? Use coming judgment to point to the one who already suffered God’s judgment in our place.

Hell is a poor motivator unless it is used to tell of the one who went through hell to keep us from it. Using it in this kind of way actually exalts Christ in a powerful way because it helps show how much He has truly done. This kind of preaching and teaching about hell should lead people to see how glorious the King over hell is. By God’s grace, they would then avoid hell not in an effort to save their hide, but to worship and love an incredible Savior.

It is possible to use the reality of hell in a poor way, but there is also a way to use it to exalt Christ and tell of His glorious gospel.

Walking With Hurt People

I’ve written before about some of the differences between revitalizing a church and planting a church. One of those differences has a lot to do with the fact that in revitalizing a church, you’re working with people who have been there a while.

When people have been at a church for 10, 20, 30, or even 40 years, they remember. And if the church has seen better days in the past, that means there are people who remember hurts.

Churches aren’t always safe places where everyone is always gracious and forgiving. Sometimes they’re unhealthy places where people assume the worst and attack one another. If you stay in a church for even a few years, you’ll start to notice warts, and even have someone say something to you that was presumptuous, hurtful, or a plain lie.

Now imagine 40 years of that. Yeah, people are hurt.

I’ve thrown around a few ideas for different programming and whatnot and had an idea or two be the thing that reminded someone of the hurts they’ve experienced. What happened at that time? All the frustration started flooding back.

It would be easy to take that frustration as an attack on me or my idea. It wasn’t. It probably didn’t have anything to do with my idea. It probably doesn’t even have anything to do with me. It’s just a hurt person remembering.

A lot of church members that have been around for a long time don’t need a ton of instruction from the new pastor. They know the Bible–I’m sure some of my members could teach me a LOT of things! What a lot of members need is someone to walk them through their hurts.

Programs come and programs go. It’s the people you’re there to pastor.

 

What Faith Is

He just has so much faith.

Well, I’m not sure what that means. Faith isn’t something you measure in quantities. It’s something you either have or don’t have. It’s more like a light switch that’s either on or off rather than a fader that increases or decreases intensity.

This is important because some who think that faith is something you measure could be very much deceived. Some people think faith is simply confidence. The problem is this doesn’t necessarily imply faith. As a result, the resting place of the faith of these is how well they “believe.” Their confidence is really in themselves, not Christ.

Here’s an example.

blondin-wheelbarrowImagine a stunt man who walks across a tight rope over the Niagra Falls. He’s very skilled. He can even push a wheelbarrow across in front of him.

One day he takes his friend to the falls and demonstrates for him how he can push the wheelbarrow across the falls on the rope without falling or dropping the wheelbarrow. The stunt man even puts 180lbs of bricks in the wheelbarrow (the exact weight of his friend) and pushes that across several times without even a hint of slipping.

Then the stunt man asks his friend, “Do you have faith that I could push you across Niagra?”

“Well of course,” said the friend. I’ve seen you do it several times.

“Then get in,” replied the stunt man.

_________________

There are many people who say they believe in Jesus or have faith in Jesus but aren’t actually letting Jesus carry them to the Father. They know all there is to know about Jesus. They know the size of the wheelbarrow, how far the rope stretches, the tension of the rope, even who built the wheelbarrow and why this kind of wheelbarrow is better than other kinds, but they’ve never gotten in.

Demons have this kind of faith. It’s a dead faith, a fake faith, an impostor.

Once inside the wheelbarrow, it doesn’t matter how scared you are or how calm you are. What matters is whether or not you’re in the wheelbarrow. After all, it’s Jesus that carries you across, not how well you believe or how much faith you have.

It’s like Tim Keller said,

It’s not the quality of your faith that saves you, it’s the object of your faith.

6 Lessons Learned From the Worst Pain in My Life

lessons-learnedIf you’d like to read a timeline of the battle I had with the infection, you can read that here.

______________

I texted Dad and told him this mouth infection was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I still believe that. It has been crazy, but the Lord has been with us.

Here are a few lessons I’ve learned through all of this, in no particular order.

1. My wife is the greatest person in the world.

Seriously. She has cleaned my vomit, kept my giant pill schedule, fed me, prayed for me, cried with me, carried me around to 100 appointments, and was strong when I was weak in more ways than one. She has not complained one time nor made fun of my inability to do even the simplest things like raise up to drink some gatorade. I love this woman, and can’t believe how blessed I am that God gave her to me as my wife.

2. It takes a village.

Without Mom and Dad, Tom McCullough, Chris AndJoanna Walker, and countless of you who prayed, gave food, or covered for us in several ways, we would not have been able to make it through this like we did. Thank you.

Tom took me to the ER. He basically carried me to the car. Just before I got in the passenger side I vomited again, and Tom literally held me up so I wouldn’t fall to the ground. I’ll never forget that.

3. Don’t underestimate how powerful a smile can be.

(That’s not intended to be a bad dentist joke!) On several occasions I was in intense pain and was on the verge of losing it emotionally when a stranger noticed what I was going through and smiled. Once in the dentist office after the second failed root canal a lady in the waiting room tried to make me laugh as I stood there shifting my weight trying my best to hold everything in as my face throbbed. She wasn’t very funny, but it helped, and I was thankful. Another time I was walking to get the CT scan at the hospital and as I turned a corner an elderly lady with a walker saw me. My face was giant, swollen, and nasty, but she could tell I was in a lot of pain, so she smiled. I’ll never forget those strangers.

4. Sometimes the Lord’s presence is most real in the middle of the worst pain.

During the first root canal, I was nervous as teeth and I don’t get along (obviously!) and was exhausted from being in so much pain all night. I was praying and praising the Lord for being so good to me as the drill was going into my tooth. That was one of the top 5 or so times the Lord has been so tangibly present with me. I mean guys, He was there.

5. When you don’t know what to say to the Lord, just use His Word.

This happened several times throughout this experience. If the pain is intense enough, you won’t know what to say. His Word is enough. Just rest on that and He’ll take care of what needs to happen.

6. I will think twice before I talk about suffering in a flippant way again.

When I would talk about being willing to suffer for Christ, I had nothing to base it on. I have never suffered anything remotely significant before. It’s easy to say that if you were faced with a situation where you had to choose no suffering or Christ that you’d choose Him. After going through this, I honestly don’t know what I would do in other cases that involved more suffering. I don’t have much confidence in myself. All I know is that the Lord was with me and that He gave me amazing people to help bear the burden. For me, that was enough, and I am grateful. The Lord promised He would be with me, so if that will be true in the future, then I will lean on Him to come through if He calls me to suffer for Him again.

A Timeline

Friends, thank you so much for praying. This battle is winding down, and by God’s grace, the infection is losing. Here’s a brief rundown.

Dec 10: Began to have a toothache on number 31. From here on I began to sleep about 4 hours/night.

Dec 12: Appointment with the dentist, who strongly urged me to have an emergency root canal on 31 because of a large abscess tooth (infection underneath the tooth). I took 4 amoxicillin before the procedure and began taking it after then, along with hydrocodone and 800 mgs of motrin. I had mild swelling at this point.

Dec 16: We called the dentist that morning as the pain and swelling increased a great deal. They noticed #30 also had an abscess. They gave me 20+ shots to attempt to get my mouth numb, but they were unsuccessful. When you have a substantial infection, it blocks the numbness. After trying to attempt the root canal without my mouth being numb, I decided the pain of drilling my tooth was too much to handle.

They referred us to an oral surgeon who took us in that day. He took a thorough x-ray which revealed a large infection under 30-31, which had spread to other parts of the right side of my face. He put me under, pulled 30-31, and put a drain from my face feeding into my mouth, which would hopefully drain the infection (it doesn’t just go away, it has to escape somehow).

[To get rid of this kind of infection, three things need to happen: (1) get rid of the source of the infection–aka my two teeth, (2) create an escape route for the infection to drain out, and (3) find the right antibiotic to fight it. The Dr. said in the colonial days, I would have died from this. I wasn’t so sure it wasn’t still the Colonial days.]

The oral surgeon put me on a much stronger anti-biotic, stronger pain meds, and sent me home.

Dec 18: We called the oral surgeon as my swelling had increased and I had not experienced any drainage of the infection, which is necessary to get rid of it. He had us come in that day. He noticed a lump near my chin which was softer (swelling in the face isn’t soft but hard) and red. This was the area where the puss from the infection was settling. It was there that he needed to make an incision to allow the drainage to release.

We went to get a CT scan this day to rule out some really, really serious stuff.

Dr. Gaul stayed late that night to put me under and perform the surgery. He also flushed my face to get as much drainage out as possible. He then stitched a small plastic cylinder in that location to keep my chin open. This would allow drainage throughout the next few days. He also put me on another even stronger antibiotic.

Dec 19: One of the antibiotics had a side effect that made me lose my appetite and caused vomiting. Because I didn’t have much on my stomach and I had ibuprofen and two strong antibiotics on my stomach, I began vomiting that evening. We decided I needed to go to the ER to regain fluids. I spent a few hours there that night. This was the low point of the journey.

Dec 20: All liquid diet and a lot of sleep, including another scrip that calmed my stomach were the theme of this day. The Dr. removed the plastic cylinder from my face as the drainage slowed and swelling began to decrease. I turned a corner this day. Mom and Dad arrived that night to help Lynsey take care of me and the baby.

Dec 21: Same as previous day. More meds, more sleep, more liquid diet. I took a bath this day. Swelling decreased even more. I held Caroline for the first time in a week on this day.

Dec 22: Same as previous day, began small amount of solid foods. Took a shower this day.

Dec 23: The oral surgeon gave us the OK to travel to Arkansas. Ate more solid foods. He also gave us another antibiotic to start after the other two are finished to give a final blow to the infection.

I continue to improve my strength. It’s silly how weak I am. This has been the grand pappy of infections.

Today we asked the oral surgeon about the sample of drainage he took during the surgery a few days prior. He said we shouldn’t worry about that. They would have only needed that if I ended up in ICU. (So glad he didn’t tell us that at the time!)

Spurgeon on Prayer

I’ve been loving E.M. Bounds’ book On Prayer. I highly recommend it so far. In chapter 6 he quotes Spurgeon. I hope this encourages and challenges you today.

What reason can be given why we should be exempted from prayer? What argument can there be why we should be deprived of the privilege and delivered from the necessity of supplication? I can see none; can you? God will bless Elijah and send rain on Israel, but Elijah must pray for it. If the chosen nation is to prosper, Samuel must plead for it. If the Jews are to be delivered, Daniel must intercede. God will bless Paul, and the nations will be converted through him, but Paul must pray. Indeed, he did pray without ceasing; his epistles show that he expected nothing except by asking for it. If you may have everything by asking, and nothing without asking, I beg you to see how absolutely vital prayer is, and I beseech you to abound in it.

 

Watch Out for the Creativity Trap

imagesI fell into a trap I’m all to familiar with last night: the creativity trap.

Creativity isn’t bad for people in some occupations, but it is often a trap for pastors.

It happens when a pastor sees a need or a problem in his church. “We need more volunteers.” “We need to help our youth get past a spiritual apathy they seem to have.” “We need to win more lost people.”

Not bad things to think about, and most definitely good things to move past. But the trap comes in how I usually respond to the problem. My usual response is generally, “What creative or ingenious thing can I think of to fix this problem?”

That’s the creativity trap right there.

The creativity trap convinces us that we can use non-spiritual means to fix spiritual problems.  

It’s good to be creative. But we fall when we think our creativity is the main way God builds His church.

Spiritual people need spiritual nourishment–God’s Word. The Word of God is the guaranteed method to build Jesus’ church. It cannot fail.

Isaiah 55:10-11:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

There are people associated with your church who will leave saying, “You didn’t wow me.” Listen bro, you can spend all your energy trying to keep those people by making church cooler. More lights. Hipper graphics. Higher resolution videos. More current music. But cool does not build the people of God. God’s sheep long for the food of God’s Word.

Which would you rather have: a cool church full of people threatening to leave unless you entertain them again? Or a church with people content to be spiritually nourished no matter how uncool it is? One crowd comes for creativity, the other comes for God’s Word.

Do you really believe God’s Word will do what God claims it will do? Watch out for the creativity trap.

Tweetable Thoughts on Discipleship

  • DiscipleshipTitleIf you haven’t read Robert Picirilli’s book called Discipleship, buy it and read it.
  • Grace upon grace? Absolutely. But grace that effects no change in someone’s life is not real grace. Grace is free, but it is not cheap or weak.
  • The Bible does not say that “Those who live unrighteous lives but made a faith decision will enter the kingdom of God.” The Bible says those whose lives have been changed by grace live righteously–they are the ones who will inherit the kingdom of God.
  • Trees without fruit are cut down and burned (Matthew 7). “Converts” whose lives are not changed are not counted righteous on the last day–no matter when, how, or how often they’re baptized.
  • When God makes someone righteous by His grace, at the judgment seat of Christ, the life of that person in Christ will prove God was effective.
  • Christians sin, but sin is not characteristic of them. Sin for a Christian is like a person acting a part. It happens, but it’s not who they really are.
  • Good works are not the cause of initial salvation, but they are required at final salvation to prove initial salvation was legit. (Paraphrased from Schreiner)
  • Everything that flows out of a Christian happens as a result of new spiritual birth. People born of God look more and more like their father the older they get.
  • If someone is not living a life of a Christian, I don’t tell them to shape up or ship out no matter how long they’ve been professing Christ. I tell them to look to Christ.

A Sermon Satan Loves

There are two kinds of sermons that Satan loves.

1. A Sermon Without Jesus

Charles Spurgeon said:

No Christ in your sermon sir? Then go home and don’t come back until you have something worth preaching.

Jesus is the point of the Bible. He is the embodiment of the good news. And it’s the good news that God uses to change people’s hearts. So if you don’t have Jesus in your sermon–the good news–then you don’t have a sermon that can change people’s hearts. You might have a sermon that motivates people to make temporal changes, but like a branch disconnected from the vine, changes not rooted in the grace of God will quickly wither away.

2. A Sermon Without Application

Satan has impeccable theology. He knows everything there is to know about God. But he doesn’t obey God or worship Him as God. Satan’s problem is not an information problem. It’s a worship problem that shows itself in his actions. When we “preach” in a way that does not get to the worship problem that changes actions, Satan is very comfortable. He does not care that people’s minds are informed if their hearts and lives are not transformed.

This is why simply explaining a text is not preaching that makes Satan shudder. I’m not even convinced it should be called preaching. Teaching maybe, but not preaching. Preaching is intended to change people, not just inform them. If your intent in the pulpit is to simply inform, please leave the preaching to someone else.

I will preach Christ and I will apply the text to my people. I want to preach sermons that Satan hates.