Thursday, December 31, 2009

Listening: Act Three

Listening to those you'll be speaking to is also of great importance. If you don't know the audience you're speaking to you're liable to speak over them, below them, around them, but not to them--let alone their hearts.

Consider the following words from Bonhoeffer:

The first service that one owes to others in community consists in listening to them. Just as love for God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God's love for us that He not only gives His Word but also lends us His ear. […] Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and, in the end, there is nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words.

Youth leaders, perhaps more than most other types of ministers, must be listeners first. In counseling, no doubt, but also--and perhaps more importantly--in sermon preparation. What do the voices of the students say? What do they love? What do they hate? What are their struggles? What are the obstacles they face in life? What are the intellectual issues the students wrestle with?

If you speak only exegesis you speak what you have heard from the text, but you don't speak it in light of community. The role of the preacher is to speak what you have heard from the text in light the community you are speaking to. Speak the text, proclaim the text, but speak it to the heart of the community.

Tim Keller says that all scripture speaks to 'defeater beliefs.' Defeater beliefs are intellectual ideas that silence the compelling nature of the Gospel and quench of the work of the Spirit. "How can a good God let evil exist?" "Christianity is just a moral strait jacket!" and so on. Thus as you listen to scripture, listen to your audience simultaneously. What are the 'defeater issues' in their context? Do their social aspirations prevent them from embracing the Gospel ("What will they think at work or at school?"). Do they have intellectual issues that keep them from embracing the Gospel? The role of the preacher is to discern what 'defeater' issues the text speaks to and offer scripture's response to the congregation. This isn't merely apologetics this is the beginning of crafting a challenging word that pierces the heart.

For Keller, serving in Manhattan, he is constantly meeting people who have intellectual objections to Christianity (below is a great article he wrote that unpacks all of these issues). When he prepares his messages he seeks to listen to how the scripture is challenging the 'defeater beliefs' that so many Manhattan residents hold to. How does this Psalm challenge defeater belief: "Christianity is just a moral strait jacket," etc.

While Keller's audience is primarily well-educated and upwardly mobile and thus more likely to have intellectual issues with the Gospel. Most audiences don't struggle as much with intellectual issues as they do with social issues. In fact many sociologists believe that social realities are more of a factor in determining what a person believes than logic alone. A person is more likely to believe something if someone they respect believes the same thing. That said, the preacher must listen to the text as it, by God's Spirit, confronts social and intellectual defeaters.

Example: In High School many students constantly feel on the margins. They long to be accepted. This often makes them act out and 'pose' to gain acceptance into a certain group. This line of acting takes them farther from the Gospel as it pushes them to conform not to the will of God but rather to a certain social group. The Gospel challenges this 'social defeater' by maintaining that acceptance is not based upon 'posing' but on the basis of Christ. If you are in Christ you no longer have to anxiously seek to find acceptance, you are fundamentally accepted.

What are some social and intellectual defeaters of your crowd?

The challenging word of the sermon rests partially on how you speak to the audience's 'defeaters'. Discerning their 'defeaters' begins with an act of listening.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Listening Act Two

[as my faithful readers may have come to understand, i'm working on a sermon training manual for laity. comments welcome]

It is also important to listen to people that are older and wiser, and those that have called on Christ in different historical periods--those that aren't you're contemporaries. There is an idea in contemporary evangelicalism that learning is not necessary, particularly book learning as it relates to the scriptures. It's thought that we have the Spirit who will lead us into all truth; God's revelation is immediate, why do we need then an intermediary resource, like a commentary?

It's interesting that throughout history this sentiment has often expressed by heretical groups and sectarian movements. The lack of interest in commentaries or learning from scholars and Bible teachers is often a mark of pride with a spiritual veneer. Also, it is most likely indicative of the enlightenments over-emphasis on the individual. The mainstream of the church has always believed that the individual is not independent but rather, inter-dependent, with regard to all things. The secondary act of listening in sermon preparation is to listen to the Church's voice expressed in commentaries and sermons on the relevant texts.

When reading a commentary you are able to sit at the feet of great scholars and Bible teachers. You are able to hear the text afresh and discern new ways to perceive and communicate scripture. You're able to stand on the backs of giants.

However, some might too quickly move to the commentary, this should not be done. Reading commentaries and listening to relevant sermons is a crucial act of sermon preparation but it should never precede a prayerful individual reading of the passage. It is incredibly important to familiarize yourself with the assigned passage, seeking God's leading in the interpretation of the passage, before you consult those older and wiser. In this way you are getting to know the text and thus the commentaries and sermons aren't speaking into a vacuum. Further, when you approach the commentary or sermon you bring your own learning to the discussion.

Pay attention to how the commentators divide the text (chapters and verses). What do they spend most of their time discussing? Do they offer important historical contextual points, things that make the text more lucid and challenging? Compare and contrast your reading of the text with theirs'.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Listening Act One

Read the assigned scripture.

Read the scripture surrounding the assigned scripture.

What is being communicated?

How is it being communicated?

How does it fit into God's story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration?

How is it pointing to Christ?

What issues is it speaking to?

How is it challenging you?

These questions shouldn't be mere inquiries into the text, as if you were interrogating it--or hunting for answers. Rather, they should be integrated into the preacher's approach to the text. All scriptural texts point to Christ. All scriptural texts exist in God's redemptive story. Listening to the text involves hearing the text's response to the questions.

Further, these questions shouldn't be asked as if you were above the text, analyzing it. They should be reverently asked, as if you were below the text.

The temptation is to ask only "How can I use this text to teach?" The preacher must begin with "What is the text saying." To start with "How can I use this text" short-circuits the process of listening to the text. Ask the Spirit to confront you through the text. Ask the Spirit to pierce your heart. Ask the Spirit to hear the challenging word, before saying the challenging word. This will revive your soul and will later be the 'raw material' of the sermon.

Take your time.

Listening takes patience.

You may think you have an 'answer'--don't move too quickly.

Listening is an act of prayer.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Primary Considerations: Listening, the All-Important Foundation

And now the end has come. So listen to my piece of advice: exegesis, exegesis, and yet more exegesis! Keep to the Word, to the scripture that has been given to us.
-Karl Barth
(Just before Karl Barth was exiled from Germany in 1935)

“For what we preach is not ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as servants for Jesus' sake.”

2nd Corinthians 4:5

We don't preach ourselves, but the Word--the Living Word Christ (John 1) and the scriptural Word. The temptation is to build on a foundation other than the Word. We all have personal stories or great illustrations at the forefront of our minds, good and important though they are, they aren't the foundation of a scriptural message. It's perhaps tautology but the foundation of a scriptural message is: scripture and to that which it points, namely Christ.

In this section we'll look at what it means to do faithful "exegesis". Exegesis means: a critical explanation of a text. The preacher's first task is to be a student of the Word, drawing the meaning out. This requires an act of listening. Before you can draw out what is being communicated in the text, you must listen to the text.

I'm writing a little handbook on preaching for some of my adult leaders. This is the preface, so to speak. More coming.


There are many approaches to texts. Shuffling through pages, quickly hunting for summary statements and bold words--this is a form of reading that belongs to university libraries. A skeptical reading, looking between the words for cracks in arguments or faults in the story line--this is a form of reading suitable for debate or argumentation. Then we've all read several pages only to find that the words were merely white noise, nothing was retained.

Kierkegaard talks about the reading of scripture as an act of love, like reading a love letter. This is the only way to approach the reading of scripture. Listening to the scripture, within its context, is an act of submission to it--and by extension it is an act of submission to God. In listening to scripture you're setting yourself below the text. You don't offer anything to add, you are under it's tutelage. This is where the preacher must start, you must be under the scripture's tutelage. You must be under the Spirit's tutelage as he points you to the living Word Christ through the scriptural Word. Listening is the appropriate metaphor for the way a preacher reads scripture; before the preacher proclaims he must listen.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Book for purchase (at suggested donation)

I'm working on a devotional/commentary on the Gospel of Mark. It's turning out to have some promise. I'm self-publishing and the content is with High Schoolers to College students in mind. If you're interested in purchasing one, or you're strapped for cash and would like a free copy leave me a comment below. I'll get your info and alert you to when they're out.

You can read a few posts back for samples.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Eschatology... good listening

Admittedly I'm not often too keen on John Piper. Christian brother, etc. Still, he often seems a little too polemical and acerbic (that might be a bit of an overstatement... but then again I really like N.T. Wright).

All that to say I really enjoyed listening to a two-hour podcast where he moderated a discussion on the three dominant millenial views. If interested click here.

Idolatry II

Just finished reading David Powlison's "Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair." It's a great article that provides a coherent and biblical understanding of much of human motivation. I am left with a few questions regarding how far he develops the theme of idolatry as it relates to human motivation (feel free to ask me what I'm referring to in the comments, don't want to spend the time here).

But I whole-heartedly recommend it. If interested, download it here.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Tim Keller and others have done us a great service in helping us to understand sin, not primarily as doing 'wrong' things, but rather making 'good' things 'ultimate' things. As a Youth Pastor I have profited from this approach to sin, not only personally but also with regard to teaching. I regularly have High Schoolers sense that they are making something 'good' (usually sports) into something 'ultimate.'

Even better than how accessible it is is how true it is. When you turn something 'good' into something 'ultimate' then you walk a path of destruction and depression. This is well articulated by Chris Lukezic, a professional runner who has just recently retired. Here's how he words it:

"I think the year that I had my best races, so many things were going on in my life that running was just something that I was doing. It wasn't everything to me. And I really built running in to my entire world, which became a detriment. If there's anything I can blame, it's myself for making running such an important aspect of my life - making it way too important. And that really hurt me, because when I had a bad race, I took everything so personally."

Whether Christian or not, he explains the reality of what happens when a 'good' thing becomes an 'ultimate' thing.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Bible Giveaway from

Logos Bible Software is celebrating the launch of their new online Bible by giving away 72 ultra-premium print Bibles at a rate of 12 per month for six months. The Bible giveaway is being held at and you can get up to five different entries each month! After you enter, be sure to check out Logos and see how it can revolutionize your Bible study.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Playlists are the New Album

It occurred to me a while back that the playlists you have on your ipod are very vivid expression of post-modernism. The album forged in the furnace of the bands creativity, with it's own narrative arch or thematic development are no longer important--it's the hit song purchased for 99 cents blended together at the whim of consumer. It's the death of the author in a nut-shell.

Indie Music and the Rapture

I don't know why but it seems like an increasing amount of great bands-whose lyrics are rife with Christian terms- are stuffing their songs with 'rapture' themes. Here's an example from Page France's "Chariot":

you're a wrecking ball
with a heart of gold
we will wait for it to swing
like a chariot
swing it low for us
come and carry us away
so we will become
a happy ending.

And then also from My Brightest Diamond's song "Disappear":

One day I may disappear
Don't be too suprised
'Cause I get tired of
Noisy alarms
& phone bills

& I don't think we're meant to stay here very long
I don't dream of bringing heaven down not like this
I'd rather move on.

There is also Sufjan's "Chicago" on Illinoise.

It's fascinating that edgy talented indie folk are seeming to prefer a relatively new doctrine without much scriptural warrant. Perhaps "noisy alarms / & phone bills" are really that annoying, add that to the wars, broken families, etc. Still it would seem that the more prevalent theme of restoration, new creation, new heavens and earth would be a less gnostic outlet for lyrical creativity.

I guess I didn't think folks like Sufjan and Page France would have much in common with Hal Lindsey. Huh.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Pride Upside Down Mark 9:30-37

This is a continuation of the Devo-Commentary I'm working on for my students on the book of Mark. Thoughts are welcome!

Jesus was teaching them, telling them that the Bible (the Old Testament), says that the Son of Man—the Messiah—was going to the cross and then be raised from the dead. Mark says the disciples didn’t understand, which is really obvious, the next thing you find them doing is arguing about which one of them is the greatest, which one has the best stats.

This makes sense to us. Whether video games, football, looks or smarts high-schoolers—and all everyone really—want to be on top. We want to be the best. It makes us feel good about ourselves; it makes us feel loved. Over the years I’ve come to see that underneath all of our posing, flexing and comparing, is a desire to be accepted—to be loved. Acceptance is hard to come by, that’s why we feel like we have to look a certain way, be good at a certain sport, have massive brains, etc.—we’ve been taught by the world that acceptance is based on our ability to perform. Think about it, that’s how it works at school (you’re accepted on the Honors Society if you perform), that’s how it works in sports (you make varsity if you perform), that’s how it works at your job—if you got one. The disciples, like us, want to be accepted by Jesus but they have a twisted way of going about it.

Jesus hears about it and pulls a kid up and says, “You want to be cool… well hang out with this little snot nosed whiner. The way I do life is centered not around being first—posing on stage—it’s about being last, a servant to everyone!”

How can Jesus say something like this? He turns pride upside down, why? Because he knows that acceptance isn’t based on shoving your way to front of the line, it’s not based posing. It is based on the pose that Christ took on the cross though. You’re accepted—what you’ve always wanted—not because you proved that you’re the best it’s because Christ became the least on the cross and made a way for us to connect with the Creator of all things!

Because He’s accepted you, you’re free to not be concerned about shoving your way to the front of the line… let someone else go! Instead of playing shotgun, play not-gun and sit in back. You don’t have to posture and pose to pretend you’re the best, you’re already accepted! You’re accepted into something more important and foundational than the ‘cool’ group… you’re accepted into God’s arms!


Think about all the ways the world tries to thrust itself into first place. Knowing that you’re accepted how can you practice humility? How can you turn pride upside down?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Help my Unbelief

I'm working on a devotional-commentary type thing for my high school students. We have spent the past year looking at the Gospel of Mark; so it's on Mark. Below's a sample, your comments are welcome and needed.
The disciples hadn’t faced challenges like this before—an evil spirit that didn’t respond to their exorcism [read: for more on the disciples’ ministry experiences check out Mark 6:7, and 30]. I imagine they wondered what in the Hell was going on, literally. They’d done this kind of thing before; Jesus commissioned them to do this kind of stuff. Shouldn’t it get easier as time goes on? Isn’t this the natural way for things to go… easier with time? Oddly enough, this is anything but the truth for the Disciples. The initial excitement splinters in the face of the cross's reality. The longer they follow Jesus the closer they get to the cross, the disciples most challenging experience in their life of following Jesus.

It’s not just the disciples who are confused. There’s a father of a demon-possessed boy whose a big swirling mixture of confusion, stress, and belief. When Jesus talks to him he tells the man, “Everything is possible for one who believes.” [think: Jesus is telling the man to believe in him, Jesus—not in the miracle. Another way of saying it is “If you believe in Jesus anything can happen.”]. The man replies, “I do believe; help my unbelief.”

The disciples are confused. The man is a belief and emotions are being tugged either way. The drama is high. [What do you act like in tough situations? Is it tough to believe?]

A really sharp dude named John Calvin once wrote, “The prayers of believers do not always flow on the with uninterrupted progress to the end … but, on the contrary, are involved and confused, and either oppose each other, or stop in the middle of the course, like a vessel tossed by tempests, which, though it advances towards the harbor, cannot always keep a straight course, as in a calm sea.” He knew that in tough situations, when the storms are brewing and we’re lost in the winds of confusion, our prayer and belief fluctuates and is tested. The good news of this story, the story of your life, is that Jesus is trustworthy—even when life is not.

This section of scripture concludes with Jesus healing the boy, and with the disciples learning more about doing ministry to the hurting and the possessed. What we learn (again) is that while we have a storms Jesus calms them. What we learn is that while our faith fluctuates Christ’s faithfulness to us doesn’t. That’s good news!


Journal about some situations that you’ve doubted or had a hard time believing… ask God to show you how he was faithful… even when you doubted.