Exploring The Habits of The Christian Life: Listening To Sermons

There is much on the Interwebs that speaks of how best to listen to sermons, even books have been written on the topic. However, as I work my way through the book Habits of Grace by David Mathis I am struck by the simplicity and meaning in listening to a sermon.

When we think of listening often we imagine ourselves not talking, and that’s about it. But, of course, listening requires more of us than simply shutting our mouths. It requires intentionality in actually hearing what someone is saying to us. It means we need to stop and focus, it means we need to take the time to hear someone out before chiming in with our own thoughts on the conversation at hand.

In a section on listening Mathis speaks of the grace that comes when we take time to actually listen to a sermon. The preaching of the Word is God speaking to his particular people in a particular location, and so listening is an important skill in this instance. But the symbolism of this act of listening is deeper than perhaps we’ve thought of before.

While preaching can get a bad rap, it is one of the ongoing activities of the Christian faith where God speaks to us through another human. And while the rest of our week may be filled with different activities, conversations about faith even, there comes a time where the faithful gather and seek to listen together to God’s Word. There are plenty of hours in the week to do other things that pertain to our life and faith, but for 30 minutes a week Christians gather to close their mouths and listen to the preaching of the Bible. This is fascinating act, a symbolic act, by believers around the world as they seek to encounter Jesus more deeply and in a powerful way. And even then, many are restless and sleepy for those 30 minutes too.

The other aspect to this is the fact that it is Christians gathered together. There is a corporate and communal aspect to the worship of God in church each week. It is not an individualistic activity, despite people not knowing one-another too deeply at times. It is the Christian community of a particular location getting together to hear from God together. Another sign of the unity that comes through Christ. And as Mathis writes,

“But preaching is not just about Jesus; it is his way of being personally present with his church. Good preaching brings the church into an encounter with her Groom by the Holy Spirit. As Jason Meyer writes, “The ministry of the word in Scripture is stewarding and heralding God’s word in such a way that people encounter God through his word. In faithful Christian preaching, we not only hear about Jesus, but we meet him.”

As Calvin once wrote about the purpose of preaching, “…to offer and set forth Christ to us, and in him the treasures of heavenly grace.”

While we may find preaching tedious at times I appreciate the fact that God has set this as one of the ways he gives us grace. In all our other activities of faith, particularly on a Sunday morning, there is the giving and receiving of grace to God. Through songs, through prayers, through communion even, we are often speaking to God as well as hearing from him. Through the preaching of his word we actually take the time to be still and quiet before him, solely receiving from him.

I wonder if this affects our thinking about the sermon for this weekend? 

Exploring The Habits of The Christian Life: Reading The Bible For Application

In recent time I’ve been exploring what modern Christianity would call the ‘spiritual disciplines’. These are the habits, the actions, the lifestyle, the regular practices, which shape spiritual formation for the self.

As you can imagine these practices are centred around the Word and prayer. However, they also bring with them other practices that can help in our communion with God (think: fasting, solitude, silence, giving etc). And in the end that is the purpose of these practices, to help in our communion with God, leading us to enjoying Him in greater depth.

Modern proponents of the spiritual disciplines are people like Dallas Willard, Eugene Peterson, Richard Foster, Donald Whitney and others. But generally when reading their books they are often footnoting the divines of ages past. This week, as I’ve been reading David Mathis’ book, The Habits of Grace, one such quote from the Puritan preacher Thomas Watson caught my eye enough to highlight. He writes,

“Take every word as spoken to yourselves. When the word thunders against sin, think thus: “God means my sins;” when it presseth any duty, “God intends me in this.” Many put off scripture from themselves, as if it only concerned those who lived in the time when it was written; but if you intend to profit by the word, bring it home to yourselves: a medicine will do no good, unless it be applied.”

How often do we read the Bible and seek to apply it to ourselves in a way that brings it home to ourselves? Often we can read the Bible for the sake of understanding more of the Bible, it’s history, it’s context, the people it was originally written to, but how often do we apply it to ourselves in a way that means we need to apply it?

For those of us who have been walking with Jesus for a while, who are familiar with the Bible, and understand many of its contours we can easily skip the application of the text for us.

As Mathis rightfully highlights following this quote, it is important to understand the Word in its context, how it relates to Jesus and the cross, before seeking to apply it to ourselves. But after reading it in this way, do we take the next step in applying it for ourselves, meditating on it to find where it may be speaking to us, insightfully helping us to see how we may need to change our thinking or actions?

5 Ways To ‘Recover’ From A Short-term Mission Team

When leaving the gym I often observe people immediately drinking their protein shakes. I’m not entirely convinced of their usefulness for an average fitness plodder like myself. However, I can understand the need for these recovery shakes to be consumed by those involved in elite sport. You see, recovery is viewed as an important part of any athletes training regime. It’s not just about preparation and training. Nor is it simply about what happens on the day of competition. Included in a holistic approach to the athlete’s growth and health is recovery.

This is the same when it comes to short-term mission teams (an in reality most ministry programs and events).

5 Ways To Recover From a Short-term Mission Team

It can often be the case that recovery from these short-term experiences is severely lacking. Much time is spent in preparation and on the trip itself. However, when it comes to debrief and recovery many find themselves left alone to work out how to process such an experience.

But recovery is so essential in these situations. Whether it is a cross-cultural short-term team, or whether it is in a place where we feel more comfortable, recovery and debrief are vital in helping us process what we’ve experienced and learnt during the adventure.

These type of trips and teams are particularly intense for a short period of time, often with people we don’t know so well, and doing tasks and activities out of our comfort zone. With it comes culture, relational, and emotional shock because of what we see, hear, smell, and taste. Therefore, it is important to ‘recover’ and reflect from these things.

Using the word ‘recover’ in this way is not to suggest negativity, but it is about reflecting on the experience. It is about making decisions and gaining clarity and perspective on what we learnt during our time away.

What recovering is not is making sure we are the same person upon our return. No, we hope to be changed, we hope we provided some change to others ourselves. And this is good. The point of recovery is not to regress back to the way things were, but point forward and apply the impact of our experience into our lives.

I’m a big believer in these short-term teams and also reflecting on these experiences. I believe anyone should go on one of these types of teams in their lifetime. They will widen our view of the world and provide tangible experiences of people and cultures that are different from us. But coming back into our own culture, with all its regular activities and people and responsibilities brings with it some difficulty. It can be a shock, it can be lonely, it can be disappointing, compared to the excitement and conversations going on in the trip. And so once it’s all over here are five things we can do to help us recover from such an experience.

First, we can pray. 

This seems obvious. But how often do we actually do it?

Praying gives us the opportunity to raise up our praises and gratitude for what God has given us, particularly the experiences we have had on a short-term mission trip. We can lift up those who we have met, the activities we were involved in, and the conversations that struck us. Our prayer lives are often enhanced because of these trips because they give us greater perspective. We can thank God for that.

But in prayer we can also lift up our questions, our struggles, and our joys. Prayer is an excellent start when seeking to recover from such a trip.

Second, we can spend time by ourselves reflecting on significant questions. 

Every time I have led a team I have always provided questions for each individual participant to complete once they are back home. Questions can make us think more deeply, and are helpful in making us think through our experience. There will have been joys and challenges, and we need the ability to name them. While conversations are helpful, time set apart for ourselves to think and process what we’ve done upon our return can helpful. I’d recommend doing this after 6-weeks, the 3-months, 6-months, and 12 months from your return.

Some questions you might like to consider are:

  • What did I learn about myself during my time away?
  • What did I learn about God and what it means to follow him as a disciple of Christ?
  • What did I learn about the people, the church, and the Christian community in the places I visited?
  • What did I learn about how culture impacts the way people live and understand the world?
  • How has my faith been impacted because of this experience? Have I learnt more about my own Christian calling through this trip?

What other questions might you add? 

Third, we can spend time with the people we went with. 

A meeting 4-6 weeks after the end of the trip is helpful to rekindle thought and relationship with those who went on the trip. If your group is from different geographical areas, then a video chat session would be another way to do this.

The reason for a team gathering soon after returning is because it helps us share stories. It provides an opportunity to share what has made a lasting impact. And it helps to know you’re not the only one going through the same challenges and struggles in coming home.

You generally form a strong bond with the people you go away with. Sometimes it doesn’t go well, and that means there might be other ways debrief and recovery needs to occur. But, most of the time, meeting up and telling the stories of the trip; what it’s like to be home and the hopes for the future, will be an encouraging way to wrap up the team experience.

Fourth, we can make sure we tell the stories with others. 

It is in the ability to tell the story of what has gone on during your time away that helps you become clearer in what you learnt, what God seems to be saying to you, and what the impact of the trip had upon you.

If you have gone with a team through your church then the opportunity to talk about your experience in a service, in a small group, or with a circle of friends is perfect. This helps you share what you’ve been up to, but also encourages others around you. Sometimes the reactions we receive from others is somewhat of a surprise, but it is important to remember that they can’t visualise or understand many of the things you went through. This is why sharing the stories is important, for you and for others.

I remember coming back from one short-term team, having spent a few weeks overseas with people I didn’t know too well. I had to talk it out with my colleagues and my wife, just to recover from what I’d experienced while away. Funnily enough, it wasn’t the cultural aspects, nor the project we were involved in, that caused the most anxiety. It was the team members I was with, and how they responded to various situations they were put in!

Sharing the stories and talking it out with safe friends and people is important in re-adjusting to ‘normal’ life.

Fifth, we can set some goals for the future.

As you have worked through these things it is also worth writing down things you’d like to accomplish off the back of this trip.

If we don’t set goals from the trip then it will just become another exciting experience that we’ve been on, perhaps a bit of travel to remember sometime in the future. Yet, if we believe God is working in us and through us, to grow us to be more like him and in his Christlike character, then it is worth pondering what life might look like having had this experience.

These goals don’t have to be world dominating. They could be three simple changes you’d like to make in your own life or faith. It could be one particular resolution you’d like to make because of what you’ve seen and heard. These goals could be anything from giving money to the projects you were involved in, praying for the place you visited, or become more involved in your church’s mission team. The goals and resolutions can be endless. However, sometimes it is better to set goals which are achievable. A goal that is personal, a goal that is faith-orientated, and a goal that is for the service of others.

With these in mind we can have confidence that this experience will last a lifetime.

Published: The Performance Trap

Last week I wrote about often feeling inadequate in the ministry, and it raised a few questions and comments. However, it also dove-tailed with a post I had published on The Gospel Coalition Australia later in the week, entitled “The Performance Trap“.

In this post I write about the amazing grace God gives to us, not because of anything we’ve done, but simply as a gift. Even though we may know this intellectually, often we fall back into performance-based living.

You can read the whole thing here.

“Intellectually we get it. We understand the heart of Christianity really isn’t about us, it’s about God and what he has done. Yet functionally we keep trying to make it about us. We are drawn back to performance in our attempt to live out our faith. In the end, we fall into performance traps; distorting the gospel and making our faith about us once again. “

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The Inadequate Youth Pastor

As I stand in the front row of our church, waiting for the song to finish before I get up to preach, my heart is beating faster than usual. My mind is sending up invisible prayers like a professional boxer hitting the speedball. While on the outside I might look calm, inside is nothing of the sort. Nerves are one thing, but it’s actually the intense feelings of inadequacy that come before the preaching begins. Afterward, those feelings return as I stand praying during the final song, simply wanting to hide. Sometimes I acknowledge the feelings and embrace them, other times I am overwhelmed by them.

These feelings of inadequacy are not restricted to the task of preaching. It applies to other areas of church life, including youth ministry and working with young adults. Whether it is meeting with someone one-on-one, leading leaders in planning our youth ministry and its culture, seeking to give wise advice to questions our high schoolers ask, or leading the week Bible study, I often walk away with a strong feeling that I’m inadequate for the role.

The Inadequate YP

Some smart person will tell me that I’m placing more emphasis on myself than on God at this point. That I’m not putting faith in God’s work through his Word, but rather seeking affirmation and positive feeling from my own performance. And while I imagine I am doing this to some extent, who doesn’t want to at least feel like they’re doing somewhat of a decent job at something they are called to? But considering the preparation, the prayer, and the ‘performance’ itself, the intensity of these inadequate feelings just doesn’t match.

It is often said that we put more pressure on ourselves than we do others. And we expect we will be able to do good, high quality work, from the outset. No matter what role we have–youth leader, parent, student, worker–we all have feelings of inadequacy. But no matter how much positive feedback I might receive this week, no matter how much experience I recognise I have, no matter how much study or reading I do, and no matter how much encouragement I see within the ministry itself, I often feel inadequate in what I do.

I suspect I’m not the only one in youth ministry feeling this way.

At this point it would be worth heading toward a positive, uplifting, and assuring verse of Scripture to tell me, and all of us, that we’re not inadequate at all. But I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m reminded of Moses in Exodus 3-4 as he lays out to God objection after objection on why he should not be the leader of God’s people, confront Pharaoh, and help them leave the bonds of slavery in Egypt. I can completely understand Moses when he says, “Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else.” (Exodus 4:13).

Evidently my pride and ego get in the way. There is no doubt. And now that I’m in my late-30’s, rather than my early-20’s, a little of the brashness and arrogance has been shaved away. But, those feelings of inadequacy still linger; like the old ladies perfume I was skunked by when receiving an awkward hug at morning tea after church.

Sometimes I’m not sure what to do with these feelings of inadequacy. I can’t say I’ve found helpful answers from others in ministry yet. It seems everyone is battling with the same problem! But then again perhaps all one needs is a good rest and some down time.

Youth Minister ‘But Now’ Series

Each day last week I had a blog post series published at Rooted Ministry. Each post focussed on particular slabs of Scripture that used the phrase ‘but now’. The entire series was narrowing in on the theme of identity in the life and times of a youth ministry practitioner (and others). The round up of each of these posts is outlined below.

Published: Youth Minister, ‘But Now’ You Have Been Included

Over at Rooted Ministry the fifth and final article of a 5-part series I’ve written has been published.

The essence of the series is identity for the youth pastor, centred on the phrase ‘but now’.

You can read the first post here, which looks at being made right with God. The second post focusses on the freedom we have because of the cross. The third post seeks to show how God has broken down barriers in order for us to be part of his family and community. The fourth post highlights our identity in relation to being reconciled to God. And the fifth post is a reminder that we are now included in God’s family.

You can read the whole thing here.

“I am reminded often, when working with teenagers, that there is a tendency in our younger years to withhold mercy toward one another. This, of course, isn’t solely a student problem. This is a humanity problem. But the withholding of mercy toward others, especially school friends and those who we deem “different,” seems particularly evident in teenagers.

In our ministry to students, one aspect of the gospel to emphasise is the fact that the mercy we have received from God through Christ changes our identity to mercy-givers. Following in the example of God, we too are called to offer mercy to others. History’s greatest act of mercy is the mercy offered by Jesus on the cross. And in our lives and the lives of our students, it is he whom we seek to imitate.”

You can read other published pieces here.

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Published: Youth Minister, ‘But Now’ You Have Been Reconciled

Over at Rooted Ministry the fourth article of a 5-part series I’ve written has been published.

The essence of the series is identity for the youth pastor, centred on the phrase ‘but now’.

You can read the first post here, which looks at being made right with God. The second post focusses on the freedom we have because of the cross. The third post seeks to show how God has broken down barriers in order for us to be part of his family and community. Today’s post highlights our identity in relation to being reconciled to God.

You can read the whole thing here.

“In youth ministry we call upon our students and their families to recognize this gift of grace God has given us through Jesus. It is great that we can have a fun time, enjoy each other’s company, learn more about God, and find a place to belong as a community. But we also need to put front and center the truth that there is a need to reconcile with God. When we call our students to God, we call them to come and receive all these benefits. The gospel is a gospel of hope that delivers us from separation and alienation and reconciles us with the God of the universe, the lover of our souls. What was broken has now been finally and forever repaired.”

You can read other published pieces here.

 

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Published: Youth Minister, ‘But Now’ You Have Been Brought Near

Over at Rooted Ministry the third article of a 5-part series I’ve written has been published.

The essence of the series is identity for the youth pastor, centred on the phrase ‘but now’.

You can read the first post here, which looks at being made right with God. The second post focusses on the freedom we have because of the cross. And today’s post seeks to show how God has broken down barriers in order for us to be part of his family and community.

You can read the whole thing here.

“But here’s the rub: Because God is with us, and because we are with God, there is no competition. There is no separation. There is no division. There is no apart-ness. No, we are with God and he is with us. We have been drawn near.

While we, and the students we lead, live in this lonely separated world we know there is something greater. Real relationship with others, being loved for who we are, and being accepted on the basis of grace is a call to community. In our churches we want to be known by people who are similarly known by God. And when we have students who are lonely, yearning for someone to simply listen, then we become an integral part in helping them be known. This is why our work is so important; it’s connecting people to God and to one-another. The greatest gift for our students is Jesus, the greatest community we can provide them with is one that shows love, respect, and acceptance in his name.”

You can read other published pieces here.

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