When a Preacher Doesn’t Feel Like Preaching

I love preaching even more than I like breathing, eating, or taking a walk on the beach. So it was very strange recently when I found myself having absolutely no desire to preach.

What could the problem be?

Of course, some pastors preach every Sunday and are simply burnt out. I could never keep that kind of schedule again. But since I haven’t preached in several months, burnout clearly isn’t my problem.

Another part of my melancholy over the issue is the fact that things didn’t go well the last time I preached. Every pastor has faced this at one time or another. Your sermon is a dud on Sunday, and by Monday you’re thinking of switching careers.

At other times, a preacher may simply be experiencing spiritual dryness. It’s horrible trying to preach a message to others when you yourself feel empty and disconnected with God.

And a similar phenomenon occurs when there’s some kind of emotional trauma going on in your personal life—such as a trial in your health, finances, family, or relationship with church members. It’s no wonder you don’t feel much like preaching when you’re bleeding inside.

Whatever the cause may be, it sure helps if you have a friend or two to share your angst with. With some prayer, wise counsel, and encouragement, your perspective usually can be restored much quicker than you think.

Lately I’ve been reflecting on Jeremiah’s decision to quit preaching and prophesying. It’s hard to blame him, really. He was delivering lots of bad news to the people of Judah, and all he got in return was ridicule and rejection.

Finally, Jeremiah decided he couldn’t take it anymore. Why waste his words on people who responded with such contempt?

However, when he considered taking a preaching vow of silence, that didn’t go well for him either:

If I say I’ll never mention the Lord
    or speak in his name,
his word burns in my heart like a fire.
    It’s like a fire in my bones!
I am worn out trying to hold it in!
    I can’t do it! (Jeremiah 20:9 NLT)

What a dilemma this mighty prophet faced. When he boldly declared God’s message, no one responded in a positive way. Instead, he became a laughingstock.

But when he determined to simply shut up, he found himself in even more agony. God’s Word inside him was like FIRE in his bones! After becoming utterly worn out when he tried to hold it in, he finally said in exasperation, “I can’t do it!”

I don’t know what you are going through today. Perhaps you are tired of speaking out. Maybe you’ve given up making any real difference in people’s lives.

Yet my prayer is for God to ignite such fire in your bones that you won’t be able to remain silent. No longer will you hold back. No longer will you just go through the motions.

If you are dealing with burnout, I pray you will get the rest and renewal you need. If you’ve been wounded, I pray you will discover God’s healing balm. And whatever it takes, may the Lord restore the joy of your salvation and passion for your calling (Psalm 51:10-13).

May you feel the FIRE again, my friend. We need to hear God’s Word from your lips.

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If God Were a Blogger…Would He Write Every Day?

 

I’m struggling with something and wonder if you can give me some perspective. It has been several weeks since I’ve posted a new blog at JimBuchan.com. I’m feeling pretty guilty about this, but I don’t know if I should or not.

It’s not as if I have nothing to say. I’ve ghostwritten thousands of words for various clients. I’ve preached twice. I’ve sent out numerous tweets to my nearly 35K followers @BestBibleTweets.

But I just haven’t felt inspired to write any new blog posts, and I’m rather bummed out about it.

This uncomfortable experience has given me flashbacks from 30+ years ago, when I heard the strangest sermon I’ve ever heard. Art Katz was the guest preacher in our church, and he started his message by saying, “I don’t have any message from the Lord today…”

Wow. I couldn’t believe he said that. Although I’ve heard countless sermons over the years that didn’t seem to be a “word from the Lord,” I’ve never heard a preacher admit  that fact!

While I don’t remember everything that transpired after Art Katz shared his stunning announcement, I do remember this: Before long, the altar was filled with people on their faces before God, crying out for a fresh outpouring of His Spirit.

Art Katz helped me see that it’s smart to shut up when God hasn’t given you anything to say. Sometimes that gives Him a chance to say things directly to His people, without any chatter from you in the background.

I’ve also been questioning the common assumption that God is constantly  speaking, even if we aren’t constantly listening. What if He chooses to be silent for a time? What if He decides to hide His face so we are caused to seek Him again? This was David’s experience in Psalm 30:6-8, prompting him shake off his complacency and cry out to the Lord more than ever.

And what about the 400 “silent years” between the end of Malachi and the beginning of Matthew? Surely God must have been speaking to His servants during that time. But it seems He had given up blogging for a while. So maybe I should feel guilty after all.

What do you think? Have you had similar experiences to Art Katz? To David? To me?

 

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Preachers: Too Much Credit, Too Much Blame?

Still_4

When I first started in ministry, I had a policy to never preach the same sermon twice, even in different locations. But in recent years, I’ve taken a new approach: If God gives me a powerful message, I assume it’s likely to apply to multiple people and places. So why not preach it more than once?

But I’ve learned something shocking in the process: The power of my message often has as much to do with the responsiveness of the people as to my own prayer and preparation beforehand.

Not long ago, I preached a very similar message to two different groups, and I’m convinced the message “fit” both groups equally well. But although my preparation and delivery were the same, the message had a powerful impact on one group, while the other group yarned most of the time.

What is the lesson here?  I asked the Lord.

I was reminded that the impact of a message is greatly affected by the prayerful, responsive hearts of the recipients. People who are hungry for God’s Word will be impacted far more than people who are just sitting in their seats, often with their mind on other things.

Somebody once observed: “If people are eager to hear and be transformed by the Word of God, you can sing ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ and everyone will shout hallelujah at the great revelation you presented!”

Of course, sometimes a truly anointed preacher can break through people’s apathy and dullness of hearing. But even Jesus commented that some of His hearers were much more responsive than others. And in some cases, people missed His points entirely.

One of my conclusions is that preachers probably get too much credit  for “good” sermons and too much blame  for “bad” ones. So if you think your pastor has been boring lately, I encourage you to do two things: (1) Pray for him and (2) Make sure your own  heart has been prepared to receive and heed the Word of God.

And speaking of credit and blame: What about a situation where a church isn’t growing? Typically the blame is put entirely on the pastor. But many visitors to a church are repulsed not by the pastor’s message, but by the unfriendliness of the congregation or the lack of volunteers to provide excellence in the ministry to children and teens.

Instead of blaming your pastor if the church isn’t growing as fast as you would like, how about taking time to regularly pray for a fresh outpouring of God’s Spirit? And what about making a new commitment to invite  people to the church and give visitors a warm welcome?

One thing both pastors and parishioners can be blamed for: Pastors in today’s American church have been put on pedestals that are virtually impossible to maintain. No wonder the pastors receive too much credit when things go well, and too much blame when they don’t.

 

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Do You Need a SELFIE Sermon?

Sermon Selfie2

I’ve been teaching and preaching the Word of God for many decades now. If you can guess how many  decades, I’ll be happy to send you a complimentary cassette tape of one of my original messages.

My first official sermon was given about a year after I gave my life to Christ. I was glad to have the opportunity, and I shared just about everything I had learned that first year of being a Christian. The sermon included such things as my testimony, the claims of Christ, the story of Nicodemus in John 3, a little bit of Bible prophecy, and a defense of why the Scriptures are truly the inerrant Word of God.

And I said all of that in just 20 minutes or so.

I thought I had done a pretty good job. After all, it was certainly fresh material to me.

But fortunately I had a friend with me that day, an impartial observer of what had just occurred. “How do you think it went?” I asked him, confident that he would give a glowing report.

Although I don’t remember everything Geoff said in his reply, the punch lines still resonate: “That’s what you call ‘shotgun preaching,’ he said with a faint grin. “You shot at lots of things, but you didn’t really hit much of anything.”

Hmmm…

I still  probably cram too much material into my sermons, but I sincerely believe they are much better now. If I still had Geoff’s address, I probably would send him a recent CD to get his input.

My sermons now tend to be more story-oriented than in the early days. I still cover a number of Bible principles in each message, but no longer just in bullet point style. And I’m much more aware that the job of a preacher in not primarily to communicate information, but rather to change lives.

One thing I’ve wrestled with lately is the difference between a narcissistic sermon and a “selfie” sermon. You’ve probably heard some narcissistic messages, where the preacher goes on and on about himself, his family, or the church, often in a self-aggrandizing way. After he’s done, you’re still not sure what application any of the message had to what you or the rest of the audience happen to be going through.

Although a selfie sermon runs the risk of being narcissistic, it ends up being much different. By “selfie sermon,” I mean that preachers much preach to themselves  before they take the stage to preach to anyone else.

Preachers who take the selfie approach avoid the hazard of becoming smug finger-pointers, with no self-awareness of how they’ve fallen short of the glory of God in their own  life. They don’t share principles about marriage without first examining their own  marriage in light of God’s Word. When preaching about the power of prayer, they first take an honest look at any struggles they’ve had in their own  journey of faith.

Jesus quotes an interesting proverb in Luke 4:23 that may have some of the “selfie sermon” principle in mind: “Physician, heal yourself!” In other words, if you purport to be a spiritual doctor, able to bring others to better health, you better make sure you’ve first tested the medicine on your own life.

I’m sure some of my preacher friends would protest at this point, “But, Jim, my life is far from perfect. I want to hold up God’s Word as the infallible standard, certainly not my own life.”

This totally misses the point, however. Of course  our lives are far from God’s perfect standard. But unless we do a painfully honest selfie sermon before preaching to others, we’re liable to give the false impression that we’ve fully mastered the scriptural truths we are proclaiming to others.

One of the reasons the Pharisees became hypocrites is that they preached Bible truths to their followers before they ever took a selfie and applied those truths to their own lives. No wonder they ended up being so pompous. No wonder people’s lives weren’t transformed by their teachings. By failing to take a selfie, they became self-absorbed  without ever become self-aware.

So go ahead and take a selfie. It will give you a chance to take the log out of your own eye before you preach to others (Matthew 7:3-5). And when you’re finally ready to give your message, you’ll be certain the principles really work. You’ll find yourself speaking with new confidence and authority, and you may even find the boldness to discard your old cassette tapes.

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Grandma’s Theory on Church Growth

Granny onlyGrandma Buchan was a very wise woman, and she had a fascinating theory on church growth. Well, actually, her theory had to do with restaurants,  but many of the same principles apply to churches.

“Jimmy, I never go to a restaurant if the parking lot isn’t full,” she told me firmly one day.

I had never thought about restaurants that way. In fact, it seemed to me that there should be other considerations.

“But, Grandma, I don’t always like  busy restaurants, because you have to wait longer for your food.”

Granny couldn’t be dissuaded, though. “No, Jimmy, if a restaurant has a lot of customers, I know the food must be good.”

At the time of our conversation, it never occurred to me to ask Grandma about her thoughts on church growth. But as a pastor, I later adapted her theorem: Churches tend to grow when they serve good spiritual food.

There’s a lot to be said for this axiom. I remember when our college fellowship group was attracting members away from the very boring and very liberal chapel program on campus. The college chaplain wasn’t very happy about this, of course, but I told him that people were simply gravitating to where their needs were being met.

I’ve been on the other end of this principle, too. What if you’re a pastor whose members are leaving to attend a church down the street? It’s particularly painful when you’ve poured your heart and soul into someone who then departs for greener pastures or a better show.

If Granny were still alive, I would love to bring up some questions about how her theory applies to churches. For example, the McDonald’s drive-thru is almost always busy. But I surely can’t say the food is good, at least not nutritionally. Aren’t there churches just like that—serving food that’s high in sugar and fat, making people obese and clogging their spiritual arteries as the years go by?

Yes, people tend to gravitate to what meets their needs, but they also can gravitate to junk food.

How does this apply to your  church? Is it just a feel-good congregation, or is it truly offering good spiritual nutrition? Is it a place of genuine relationship and accountability, or is it more akin to a McDonald’s drive-thru?

As we can see in John chapter six, Jesus’ earthly ministry demonstrated both sides of Granny’s principle. On the one hand, huge multitudes were following Him, because He was serving good food, healing people, and meeting their needs.

But toward the end of the chapter, the crowd was reduced down to the original 12 disciples. Why? Because Jesus wasn’t going to let His ministry become like a McDonald’s drive-thru. Rather than being content to entertain people or feed them junk food, He gave them some “hard sayings” that day: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you”  (v. 53).

So we need to allow God to deal with us on both sides of this issue. If few people are being attracted by our ministry, we must ask ourselves whether we’re truly serving good food.

However, if huge crowds are coming, we may need to preach some “hard sayings” and see who the real disciples are. Let’s make sure our congregations aren’t just filled with drive-by Christians, coming for the junk food. Instead of just providing a momentary spiritual high, may our “worship experiences” promote long-term spiritual growth.

 

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Preaching Like Jesus Preached

I recently had a dream that really got me thinking. In the dream, a pastor was describing a very common dilemma in the American church today.

“Jim, a few years ago I changed my preaching style in an attempt to reach more unchurched people,” the pastor began. “And sure enough, our church has attracted more visitors and unchurched people than ever before.”

“That’s great!” I told him. “So what’s the problem with that?”

With a rather pained look on his face, the pastor continued his story. “In recent months, several of our longtime church members—and biggest givers—have expressed dissatisfaction with my preaching. They say it’s not as ‘deep’ as it used to be, and they no longer are ‘being fed.’”

The dream was just getting interesting when I awoke, and that was the last sleep I got that night.

So how would you answer this pastor’s dilemma?

As I’ve reflected on the question raised in the dream, I’ve concluded that the answer is found in reexamining how Jesus preached. Although we like to think “times have changed” in our new technology-driven world, perhaps they haven’t changed as much as we assume.

Let’s take a look…

Instead of teaching from carefully constructed outlines, Jesus taught either via stories or in response to questions people asked Him. Grasping this simple truth has amazing implications for solving the dilemma raised by the pastor in my dream.

In Jesus’ vast crowds, we know there were at least three types of people:

  • People far from God, known to everyone as “sinners.”
  • Self-righteous religious folks, like the Pharisees, who mistakenly thought they were doing well with God.
  • Jesus’ disciples.

How could Jesus possibly address all three groups without watering down His message? Should He given an evangelistic message, intentionally ignoring the religious folks and His disciples? Or, instead, should He ignore the people in need of salvation, while He taught “deeper truths” to those who were already steeped in Scripture?

In the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), Jesus masterfully addressed all three groups by telling one simple but profound story. He didn’t have to single out the sinners in the crowd and try to put them under “conviction” by harping on their vices. No, when Jesus told the story, the lost could see for themselves the consequences of living far from the Father’s house. No one in their right mind would want to end up broke and working in a pigpen.

But those far from God could also see a beautiful illustration of the acceptance  they would receive in the Father’s embrace once they came to their senses. Why remain in the pigpen, when they could experience such abundance and celebration back home?

However, this parable wasn’t just an evangelistic message. Perhaps its most powerful message was to the self-righteous “older brothers” in the crowd. Although they were working hard on the Father’s estate, such people had little relationship with Him. When the Father threw a big party for the wayward son who had returned, the older brother refused to participate.

Again, those in Jesus’ crowd who fit this profile knew that He was describing them.  They either could repent of their smug attitude and join the party, or else they would end up remaining outside, full of animosity and bitterness.

Jesus’ disciples could also learn much from this story. Would they have the Father’s heart to welcome the least and the lost into the kingdom? Or would they put up roadblocks, with a sour attitude like the older brother? This wasn’t merely a theoretical question, because Peter and the other disciples had to deal with this very issue when the Gentiles were brought into the church a few years later (Acts 10, 11, and 15).

So what can we learn from how Jesus preached? He never watered down His message for anyone. With each group present, He confronted the specific issues and attitudes that were hindering them from enjoying the full celebration available in the Father’s house.

If we adopt Jesus’ style, will there still be some people who say they “aren’t being fed” by our preaching? Undoubtedly so. But many of these, like the older brother, have no idea how much fun they could be having by joining in the party.

And some would rather have their notebook filled with sound theology than their heart overflowing with the love of God. They want to be “fed” by messages that reaffirm their self-righteousness rather than dispel it.

Often the critics are seeking to have their ears tickled, with no intention of ever acting upon  the messages preached. But Jesus’ preaching made people squirm, because it demanded life-change and action.

 

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Aristotle & the Art of Persuasion

Crucial lessons on raising your leadership impact

Whether you’re a preacher, a politician, an entrepreneur, or simply a haggard employee in hopes of getting a promotion, you need to understand the fine art of persuasion. We can learn a lot about this from the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 – 322 BC), who prescribed three fundamental components for effective communication and persuasion: ethos, pathos, and logos.

Aristotle’s analysis will give us insights into why many sermons fall on deaf ears, many political campaigns end in disappointment, many business proposals are rejected, and many people never land the new job they’re after. And we’ll even understand why the 2012 Presidential election turned out the way it did.

Ethos

Ethos is the root of our modern English words “ethics” and “ethical,” so it is closely associated with matters of character and conduct. But Aristotle also used this term to describe the image of a person who seeks to persuade others. Do they seem credible? Are they the kind of person we would want to be like? Are they truly an expert on the subject they are promoting?

This means that if you’re a preacher, the impact of your sermons will be undercut if people don’t believe your life is a good example of what you teach. In order to embrace your message, they first must embrace you.

This is also why many political campaigns are based largely on ad hominem (“against the man”) arguments. Instead of a providing a true response to the other candidate’s positions on the issues, an attempt is made to discredit them as a person.

In the 2012 election, Mitt Romney was painted as a rich, insensitive “fat cat,” who had absolutely no understanding or concern for how 98% of the country lived. Instead of discussing inconvenient issues like the nation’s budget deficits, the Obama campaign constantly voiced the mantra that Romney just wanted to further the excessive lifestyle of his extremely wealthy friends. And the strategy worked, persuading enough people to vote for Obama or simply stay home and not vote at all.

Logos

Logos, of course, is the root of our modern words “logic” and “logical.” Although Aristotle was a big fan of using logic as a basis for persuasion, he also understood its limitations.

Logic only provides the right conclusion if the right assumptions are made. For example, if we assume the federal government has an unlimited pot of money, it may be logical to propose ever-expanding programs to care for people from cradle to grave. However, if we assume it is unsustainable to continue borrowing 40 cents of every dollar the government spends, we will arrive at an entirely different conclusion.

The other problem with logos is simply that many people don’t really care about logic. They may not admit this, but their underlying approach to decisions is “Don’t confuse me with the facts!”

This observation has profound implications:

  • If you are a preacher… you shouldn’t be surprised when many people remain unconvinced by the well-reasoned case you make for your theological positions.
  • If you are a politician…don’t assume that simple logic will convince a majority of voters to support your candidacy.
  • If you are an entrepreneur…you need to learn from Steve Jobs’ marketing technique—not just selling your product’s features, but also its “coolness” and “sex appeal.”

Pathos

If you’ve always depended on logic to persuade people, it’s crucial to add Aristotle’s third vital key: pathos. This indispensable ingredient focuses on the emotions of the person you are trying to persuade. Whether in preaching, politics, or marketing, this element must not be overlooked.

Successful influencers speak to a person’s heart as well as to their head. So the next time you hear a sermon, a political speech, or a TV ad, ask yourself this: How did the message make you FEEL? Even though the “logic” of the message may be entirely deceptive or convoluted, if it successfully engenders an emotional response, it’s likely to influence your behavior.

Pathos is often manipulative. Although marketers may appeal to altruism and self-sacrifice, they more frequently target our lower nature, seeking to influence us through fear, anger, greed, or pride. As communicators, we may not like this fact, but we can’t ignore it. Emotion is an important part of effective persuasion.

People almost never make their decisions based solely on logic. They are influenced much more by the likeability of the messenger and by the emotional reaction the message sparks. In 2008 the prevailing emotions were “hope and change” (positive feelings), but by 2012 the emotions primarily had become fear and anger (negative emotions).

So why did the 2012 Presidential campaign turn out the way it did? I would argue that logic was on Romney’s side regarding the economy and many other issues. But the Obama campaign did a masterful job in shaping Romney’s public image (ethos) and stirring the emotions (pathos) of his base.

Republicans may bemoan the fact that emotion seems to have won over logic, yet they shouldn’t be too surprised. That’s how things ordinarily work.

What about you today? How do Aristotle’s principles of persuasion apply to the kinds of issues you face? Take some time to ponder how you can use them to influence the people you are seeking to lead.

 

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