7 Ways to Name Your Sermon

Let me say up front that I do not have 7 ways to name your sermon. The title is stated this way as a concession to the fact that people like reading articles that offer 10 ways, 5 principles, 7 shortcuts, whatever. That is what this article is about!

Recently on this website I wrote an article which I called “Worship: Doing It the Wrong Way.” It was a one-idea theme, basically that when we go to church to “get something out of it,” we’re doing it all wrong. We ought to go to “give to the Lord the glory due His name” (Psalm 29:1).

As with many other articles we post here, the little essay was promptly picked up by an online sermon service that repackages my writing and forwards it to something like 100,000 of their closest friends. No problem whatsoever with that. And in case anyone wonders, no, no money changes hands. No blogger that I know of makes a dime from articles which these services pick up and send out. That’s not why we do this. Certainly not why this farm boy does it.

What was interesting about that, however, is that in selecting the article and sending it out, the sermon service felt they should rename it in order to make it more attractive to readers. For reasons that I find baffling, they redubbed it “Seven Things We Get Wrong About Worship.”

I went to their site and enjoyed reading a large number of comments from readers. Most were positive, a few were combative, but not a one picked up on the fact that there were not seven things or even five or three things in that article which people get wrong about worship. There was just the one.

By now, I’ve done this enough to know that editors seem to gravitate toward articles that offer bullet points–7 things, 10 easy steps, 5 insights. I suppose it’s a concession to the reading habits of the modern male. Male? Since something like 99 percent of ministers are male, yes, that would be who these headings are directed toward.

Someone says, “I thought men weren’t readers.” Fact: ministers are. They have to be.

Only, they just like 7 points. It’s easier to follow. After all, they do not plan to devote a lot of time to any one article.

So, after giving it some thought, I’ve hit upon some titles for which I’m considering writing articles and posting here on this website in the near future. See what you think.

How many are there? You know the answer to that.

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The Fruit of the Spirit is Love

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace…. (Galatians 5:22)

Recently in a McComb, Mississippi, coffee shop, a lady whom I had just sketched felt she had to tell my pastor friend and I about her switch to another religious system from the Baptist church of her youth. She said, “Every Sunday the priest preaches about love. No matter what the sermon is on, he manages to mention it in some way.”

We said nothing. And even though I know better, what I felt was, “Oh, great. He mentions love. Well lah-de-dah.” You’ll be glad to know I did not speak that. I’m glad to know I instantly rebuked myself for even thinking it.

The simple fact of the matter is that love is a biggie. Love is the very nature of God, we’re told in I John 4:16. Anyone who takes God seriously is not allowed to cavalierly dismiss the subject as unworthy of their attention.

No New Testament writing is so saturated with love more than the First Epistle of John. It is no stretch to say that those who know the Lord Jesus Christ will themselves be saturated with love.

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Counterfeits of the Spirit’s Fruits

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, kindness, faithfulness, humility, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)

Half the people I know in church have this list of Christlike qualities memorized. But I find myself wondering if they also know the list of counterfeits which precedes it. In some respects, it’s every bit as important to know the negatives, the dark side, the alternate universe if you will, of those wonderful positives.

Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also toldyou in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)

Note that these ugly traits are:

1) Of the flesh. Man-generated. We can’t blame them on God.

2) Against the Spirit. “For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.” (Gal. 5:17)

3) Anti-love, every one of them. Earlier, Scripture says, “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Gal. 5:14). Each one is a perversion, a corruption, of true love.

4) Your ticket to hell. “Those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

At this, the beginning of a series on the fruit of the Spirit, let’s take a closer look at these counterfeits.

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Before You Speak on Prayer, Three Cautions

They invite you to bring a talk, a lesson, or a sermon on prayer. Your first thought, if you are normal, is, “Who me? What little I know about prayer you could put in a thimble.”

There may be some Christian somewhere who considers himself an authority on prayer, but I have yet to meet him. The truly godly men and women known as prayer warriors will tell you they feel they have just enrolled in kindergarten.

I’m confident of this one thing: our Heavenly Father is not happy with any of His children claiming to have the inside track on how to approach Him, how to “get things from God,” “how to make prayer work for your benefit,” and how to get on His good side.

Jesus Christ has done everything necessary for us to enter the Throne Room of Heaven. See Hebrews 4:16.

Jesus Christ has opened the divider between man and God and we have an open invitation to “come on in.” See Hebrews 10:19-22.

If you and I are not entering God’s presence and lifting up our needs and petitions and interceding for those on our hearts, it’s not God’s fault. It’s not the fault of Jesus, who did everything necessary to make it possible for us to pray effectively.

So, come on in. Come in humbly, for this is the Throne Room of the Universe. Come in worshipfully for the One on the Throne is the Lord of Lords. Come in boldly because your Authority is the Blood of Jesus. Come in regularly because you live in a needy, fallen world. Come in with Jesus: in His Name, by His blood, for His sake.

That’s what we want to teach others.

But there are some things we do not want to teach, no matter how great the temptation.

Here are three cautions for anyone about to stand in front of others to teach prayer.

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Fun Discoveries in Bible Study

That’s the only way to say it: “Fun Discoveries.” You’re reading the Word, you find a passage that holds your attention, you find yourself fixated on it, even if you don’t know why, and then it all begins to fall into place.

If you are a preacher, what happens is that you bring a sermon from that passage. However, instead of moving along to a new text for the next sermon, you can’t get that one out of your mind. The Holy Spirit is holding you for that lesson and holding the lesson for you. “Did you think the revelations of Heaven could be downloaded and understood from one week’s study?”

It’s frustrating to the pastor. Since you’ve already preached on it–forcing you to work through a passage until you make it your own, so to speak–you can’t very well preach another one from the same text. “Hey folks, I know I preached this two weeks ago, but I’ve found more in it since then.”

Well, you could, but you don’t. Much of it would be a repetition of what you just got through saying. But you keep thinking about it. It stays on your mind, maybe even bugging you a little.

And then it happens. You see something there not seen before. That passage, that text, opens before your eyes and unfolds. You see a progression to its content, insights you had missed before, and a connection to other teachings in the Word.

That one especially–a connection with teachings and stories found throughout the Bible–is one of the most fun things to happen when you have lingered with a text longer than normal, you have patiently studied and thought and prayed over it, and now the Holy Spirit has rewarded you.

All of this is preparatory to sharing how this happened with me recently. Here’s the text.

But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who threaten you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt. Give to everyone who asks of you.

And when someone takes away what is yours, do not ask for it back. However you want men to treat you, do to them.

But if you love those who love you, where’s the profit in that? Even sinners do that. And if you do good to those who do good to you, where is the profit in that? Sinners do that. And if you give to those who give back to you, where’s the profit in that? Sinners give to one another, expecting a full return on their investment.

But love your enemies. Do good, and give, hoping for nothing in return. And (two things will happen:) your reward will be great, and you will be (called) sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. (Luke 6:27-35)

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Three Questions About Worship You’ve Not Asked

Someone once said the unexamined life is not worth living. I imagine that’s right. In the same vein, I would like to propose that the unexamined worship is not worth offering.

Worship that is not examined tends to sink to the lowest common denominator.

Being retired now and in a different church almost every Sunday, I see every kind of worship service you can imagine. Some give evidence of much thought, serious planning, and loving attention. Others appear to be the same form that congregation has followed since the Second World War, with even the hymns being unchanged.

Once or twice the thought has popped into my mind that it would be interesting to stop that deacon in the middle of his prayer or the song-leader in the midst of his/her exercise and say, “Hey! What is this all about? Why are you doing this?”

Those are good questions. I suggest anyone involved in worship leadership pose them (and a few others) to himself.

Why are we doing church this way? Why do we sing these hymns and not those? Why do our prayers sound the same week after week? What would happen if we changed the format? Why would I want to do that? What are we doing here on Sunday mornings? What is our purpose? What do we expect to get out of this?

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“We’re Expecting Great Things From You, Pastor”

In the Peanuts comic strip, Charlie Brown said there is no heavier burden than great potential.

Young pastors know the feeling. You arrive on the field, move into the parsonage, meet with the leaders and begin your ministry. You are feeling your way through each day, trying to find the handle for everything, hoping to get a sense of who this church is and how you can best minister to it. Meantime, you’re still trying to find out who you are and what the Living God had in mind by fingering you of all people to turn into a pastor. And some well-meaning member comes up to you.

I just want you to know, pastor–we are expecting big things from you. We waited a long time for you. This church is sitting on ready. All we need is a leader to point us in the right direction.

That sounds so good on the surface. They believe in you. They want you to succeed. They’re on your team.


Hope so.

But those words carry a great burden. They imply that if great things do not begin to happen soon, the pastor is at fault. All the other parts of the machinery were in place. If the pastor is “God’s man,” then we will move forward and have great success. If success does not come, then he is not “God’s man.”

Sound familiar? Bear in mind, this is never stated in so many words. But it sums up the consensus of the leaders of many a good church as they welcome the new preacher.

A great opportunity. A heavy burden.

Woe to the preacher who does not meet the expectations of those who called him and who convinced the congregation he was the greatest thing since Billy Graham.

I have known pastors who were relieved of their employment because (ahem) they did not live up to their potential. According to the leaders, the pastor did not deliver on the expectations they had been led to believe would follow his ministry.

Did the pastor over-promise or did the committee over-expect? Or is something else going on here?

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What the Embattled Pastor Prays

Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that You are God in Israel and that I am your servant…. (I Kings 18:36)

Elijah was confronting the prophets of Baal when he prayed that brief but potent prayer. But he was not trying to win these renegades over. His target audience was the multitudes of Israel who in their shallow affection were going with the God (or “god”) who could produce the most dramatic fireworks that day.

I have prayed that prayer.

Many a time as I entered the sanctuary for the Sunday morning service, I sent up this plea. “Lord, there are a few people in this church who are roadblocks to us doing anything. They fight me on every proposal. And they do it in Your Name. Father, please–let them know that You are God and that I am your servant.”

Now, you would think it was the second part of that prayer that occupied my attention, that what I wanted most of all was for this bunch of nay-sayers to get clear on the fact that God in Heaven had sent me as His ambassador. But you’d be wrong.

Before anything else, I wanted the same thing Elijah wanted for God’s people that day: for them to settle once and for all that the Living God is Lord and in charge and in this place. That He is “God in Israel.”

I am personally convinced that the trouble-makers in most churches do not really believe in God. Oh, they do, theoretically. If you press them, they can tell you when they professed faith in Jesus and were baptized. Call on them to pray in the service and they will render up an invocation or offertory prayer with the best of them. It’s just that they don’t really believe God is on the premises.

The proof of that is how they play fast and loose with the Bride of Christ and the Body of Christ. The way they mistreat the family of God shows beyond a doubt that the “God” they serve is some kind of absentee landlord who is not around to defend Himself and they can do as they please.

These people need to know two things: The Lord is present and He is on the job; and that man standing behind the pulpit is on assignment for Him.

One is just as critical as the other. As essential. As vital.

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The Problem in Going Public

The problem in writing a blog is that you are putting your opinions and convictions out there–exposing them to the world–where they can be shot down, vilified, criticized, and dissected. Yes, and also praised, lauded, reprinted, reposted, and remembered.

That’s what keeps us blogging, I suppose, the knowledge that someone somewhere reads it and is blessed or helped, encouraged or instructed.

The trick is to think seriously about what you’re writing and not post anything you’re not prepared to go to the mat for. Nor do you want to take a position on something sure to enrage a lot of your readers, particularly if the payoff is poor. That is, you will not see me attacking President Obama’s position on almost anything on this website. The issues are far more complex than most of of my friends think them to be, I’m not smart enough to know all I should on the subjects, and most importantly, I have something far more important in mind than who’s in the White House at the moment.

I’m working for eternity here.

This is a God thing for me.

You’ll not find me opening up an article here announcing that “this morning God told me to tell you” anything. Even so, I know the inner voice of the Lord. As all believers, I know what it is to hear God speaking to my heart, guiding me toward this and away from that. (See John 10:27 and Psalm 23:3b)

Still, it’s a precarious business, writing a blog, particularly if your ego is fragile and constantly in need of a booster shot. (Instead of “ego,” however, I prefer to call it a reasonable self-confidence. I am well aware of Paul’s admonition “not to think more highly” of oneself than we ought to.–Romans 12:3)

So with preaching.

A man–and sometimes, but less frequently, a woman–stands in front of a handful or a multitude, opens the Word and declares “Thus saith the Lord.”

He’s putting himself at risk.

In a typical congregation there are people sitting before him who are offended he would:

–be so presumptuous as to speak for God.

–call himself a holy man with the right to address them on celestial matters.

–overlook the flaws in his own life and counsel them as to theirs.

–speak to them about death and the afterlife, make claims about Jesus and God, when we know so little.

Welcome to the ministry, young pastor. The antagonism you are picking up from a few members of your congregation is normal, widespread, and probably good for you.

If you can’t handle that, you had no business accepting the call to represent Jesus Christ before mankind. This, incidentally, is what your call into the ministry amounts to. I hope you are clear on that.

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