Friday, September 25, 2009

Sermon Outline

A few weeks ago I posted a sermon outline on my web site at Some of you have told me you used that outline for a sermon and how much you appreciated it. My plan is to post a new outline each month, and there is a new one on the site now.

I encourage you to use these outlines. You probably won't use it exactly how it is written, and you probably shouldn't. Make it your own with your own illustrations and applications. Make it fit your personality and purpose. God may open your eyes to an entire series of messages from this one outline. That would be great for sermon planning!

Speaking of sermon planning...when I was a pastor I would use the fall of the year to plan my sermons for the upcoming year. I would sit down with four sheets of legal paper and write out the dates of each Sunday of the new year. I would have two lines for each date since our church had both morning and evening services on most Sundays. In the margin I would then write in special days from the church calendar so I wouldn't forget them. At that point I was ready to start thinking about what messages I would preach on each Sunday. I enjoyed preaching series of sermons whenever possible because I believe that allows the minister to approach a subject with more depth than is possible in just a 30 minute sermon. If I determined that a subject or text would need four Sundays then I would look to see where that could fit in with the special Sundays such as Mother's Day or the Advent season so a sermon series would not hit on one of those Sundays. For many years I would preach a series on the family between Mother's Day and Father's Day, and this was often one of the more popular series of messages. In the summer I often preached through a book of the Bible or a long section such as The Sermon on the Mount. This gave our congregation a more in depth look at that book of the Bible or the section, and it made my sermon planning a lot easier. I would try to determine what I would preach each Sunday of the upcoming year. Even if some Sundays were left open in my planning I was always able to plan at least one quarter ahead.

The advantage of doing this is that you are not sitting around on Saturday night still trying to figure out what you are going to preach tomorrow. Instead of starting out each week not knowing what you will preach, you can begin your week actually preparing the message. By creating a preaching schedule you can spend more time in sermon preparation which, hopefully, will lead to better sermons. The time you spend upfront in planning a preaching schedule will be more than offset by the time you save each week in sermon preparation. It also gives you the opportunity to be on the lookout for good illustrations or applications for a text you know you will be preaching from next month. You will be surprised how often you will find items you can incorporate in your sermons simply because you are aware of your upcoming sermon topics. Saving time is a good thing for bivocational ministers and better sermons is frosting on the cake.

I know there are some who refuse to plan their sermons or even prepare a sermon in advance. There are still some who believe they are simply to pray and let the Holy Spirit guide them when they step to the platform. I have endured a few sermons that obviously had no thought go into them before they were delivered, and personally I would not want to blame the Holy Spirit for them. I believe that God can guide us in our study even better than He can guide us in our pulpits. If we believe in the omniscience of God then we can believe that He knows what our congregations need to hear from us six months from now. There is no reason we cannot believe that He can guide us in developing a sermon plan in advance.

One final thought. Sometimes a situation occurs that will cause us to change our sermon, and we need to be sensitive to that. A good example of that was 9/11. The Sunday after 9/11 I did not preach the sermon I had planned for that week. People came to church to hear if God had anything to say about that horrible tragedy. I am aware of a pastor who went ahead and preached a message he had planned six months earlier to preach on that Sunday. Members of his church told me that they would have never known 9/11 happened based on what was done at their church that Sunday. That pastor was soon asked to resign. Some things happen that must be addressed, and we should not be so locked into our preaching plan that we cannot speak to those issues when they happen.

I encourage you to begin planning your preaching at least three months in advance and see if it doesn't make you sermon preparation time more productive. Feel free to use the sermons I will share with you each month in your planning. I also hope you will share with our readers how planning has helped you or the techniques you use to create a preaching schedule.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Book discussion

Ed McCallum is leading a discussion of my book The Healthy Small Church at Ed is with the Evangelical Presyberian Church. Each week he addresses one of the chapters of the book and invites people to respond. Approximately 30 people were encouraged to read the book and contribute to this discussion. There have been some very good comments and insights that pastors have shared in this discussion. I encourage you to check it out.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Communion with God

As mentioned in an earlier post I am currently reading A Quest for Godliness written by J. I. Packer as part of my daily devotional time. This morning I read a section that really spoke to me, and I decided to share it with you.

First, we cannot but conclude that whereas to the Puritans communion with God was a great thing, to evangelicals today it is a comparatively small thing. The Puritans were concerned about communion with God in a way that we are not. The measure of our unconcern is the little that we say about it. When Christians meet, they talk to each other about their Christian work and Christian interests, their Christian acquaintances, the state of the churches, and the problems of theology - but rarely of their daily experience of God. Modern Christian books and magazines contain much about Christian doctrine, Christian standards, problems of Christian conduct, techniques of Christian service - but little about the inner realities of fellowship with God. Our sermons contain much sound doctrine - but little relating to the converse between the soul and the Saviour. We do not spend much time, alone or together, in dwelling on the wonder of the fact that God and sinners have communion at all; no, we just take that for granted, and give our minds to other matters. Thus, we make it plain that communion with God is a smalll thing to us.

From my experience, Packer is absolutely right. As I reflect on my own life and my spiritual journey there have been a few times when I have been overwhelmed by the fact that God was willing to enter my life and adopt me into His family. Occasionally, I will think about how amazing His grace truly is, but I must admit that such times are few and far between. As I think back over 20+ years of preaching, such communion with God has rarely been the topic of any message I have preached. I have taken it for granted and have focused on other aspects of the Christian life. But, isn't such communion really the foundation for all of those other aspects?

In my denomination churches often celebrate the Lord's Supper once a month. Some may only do it quarterly. We often refer to this as communion, and it is conducted in most churches with great reverance with soft organ music playing in the background. However, in reality this celebration is often tacked on at the end of the worship service because it is the appropriate Sunday to schedule it. I fear that most people partaking feel little communion with God during the service. A small glass of grape juice and a dry cracker once a month or once a quarter is a poor substitute for real communion with God.

Once again, Packer has invaded my soul and forced me to think deeply about how incredible it is that a pure, holy God would even consider wanting to relate to such a fallen individual as myself. How imperfect each of us are, and yet a perfect God has chosen to relate to us as a loving Father to his children. He wants to walk with us each day through all the ups and downs that life brings. He has a plan and a purpose for each of our lives that he will bring to pass if we will only stop resisting and allow Him to do so. He wants to lift us out of the foul pits we often place ourselves in and set our feet on solid ground, give us new life, and a renewed sense of joy and peace. And in the process He wants to walk with us through life every single moment of our lives.

I encourage you to take a new look at your life as you read this post. Is your primary focus the relationship you enjoy with God or is it on the things you do for God or the things you hope God will do for you? For me, it is very easy to focus on the things I am doing instead of focusing on the relationship, and I think that might be true of many of us. Packer would encourage us to intentionally focus on the relationship. Never lose sense of the awe that comes when you realize that the Creator of the universe wants to enjoy a relationship with you.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Believing in the dark

In the past few days I have spoken with a pastor whose wife has filed for divorce, a pastor who is in great despair over the church he is serving and needs to leave, and another minister diagnosed with cancer. Each of these feels a certain darkness in their lives. I, too, feel that darkness due to some personal issues currently going on in my life. We've all been there, and if you haven't you just haven't lived long enough. The dark night of the soul comes into every life at various times, and these dark times can be a challenge to your very faith.

It's not that you doubt the existence of God or that He can intervene in your situation, at least in your mind. But in your heart you may wonder where He is and why this is happening to you. Life isn't supposed to work this way; these things shouldn't happen to you. You cry out to God and wonder why He doesn't seem to respond. Perhaps He doesn't even hear. Doubts begin to overwhelm your thinking. The recent CD from Pastor to Pastor covered "Nagging Doubts." The ministers interviewed on this CD all admitted to having these kinds of doubts, and they stressed that we all experience them from time to time.

At times like these we need to fall back to the basics. We need to spend some time reflecting on our core values, those things we stand on when everything around us seems to be collapsing. My core value is Jesus' promise, "I will never leave you nor forsake you." When I am in my dark times of the soul I continue playing that promise over and over again in my mind. It helps remind me what I truly believe about God. I must admit there are times when I wonder if Christ has in fact abandoned me, and I need that tape running through my mind to remind myself that even when I cannot see Him that doesn't mean He's not there.

I spend more time listening to Christian music. When some people are going through difficult times they want silence, but I need to listen to music and allow the songs to wash over me. I normally listen to certain artists during these times as their music seems to minister more to me than others.

Like many others, in dark times I pray more even if I am not certain at the time that God is hearing my prayers. I know God always hears our prayers, but during the dark times we can wonder if God is really hearing our prayers since we can't see any immediate action on His part. Difficulties force me out of my prayer ruts and force me to get more real in my prayers, and I imagine many of my readers would say the same thing happens to them.

Finally, I begin to look for the light that tells me I am coming to the end of this trial. Sometimes that light may look real dim, but even a dim light can give us a sense of hope that we will survive this challenge. John Maxwell says where there is hope for the future there is power in the present, and I find that so true.

Many years ago I went through a time when I was diagnosed as being clinically depressed. For a year I functioned in a dark mist that surrounded everything I did. During that time I took medication and saw a Christian pastoral counselor on a weekly basis, and by the end of the year I was well. I have no doubt the medicine and the counseling helped, but perhaps the thing that helped me most was reading a book by another minister who had been so severely depressed that he had to be hospitalized. He wrote that when he entered the hospital a nurse looked at him and said, "You will get better." That gave him the dim light he needed, and those words remained with me during my year long battle.

If you are going through a dark time in your life right now let me encourage you to remember these words as well. You will get better. Your situation will change for the good, and you will get through this. God has not abandoned you, and He is working in your life in ways that you may not be able to see. Your victory may not come as soon as you would like. I know I wish my own personal situation was resolved already, but I keep reminding myself that God has not abandoned us and that He will bring us through.

Let me close with this. Sometimes a minister is made to feel that something is wrong with him or her if they go through such dark times in their lives. Where do you think such feelings come from? The enemy seeks to compound our difficulties by seeking to add guilt to the issues we are battling. Having doubts during difficult times isn't sin; it is very human. Do not let the devil add to your problems by making you feel like you don't measure up as a Christian or a minister because you are struggling with faith issues. Don't listen to him. Instead turn towards Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, and look to Him for sustenance. He has brought me through every dark time in my life; I know He will bring me through this one; and I know He will bring you through your current challenges. I pray His blessings on you now.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Reading for the soul

I recently heard a pastor talk about the times in his life and ministry when he had doubts about God, his call to the ministry, and even the genuineness of his faith. Readers should not be surprised that even ministers can sometimes have such doubts. In fact, my guess is that all of us do at some time in our ministries just as I believe that lay persons often have such doubts as well. This pastor said during such times one of the things he does is fast from reading church growth books. Good advice! He then went on to say that he now tries to read two dead guys for every live person he reads.

He was trying to explain that we in the ministry are prone to look for books and resources that will help us identify the one thing we need to do to grow our churches. After all, most pastors wish their churches were bigger. For some that may be an ego thing, but for most of us those bigger churches mean that our ministries are making a difference in people's lives, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. However, many of these books describe fads. I would encourage the pastors reading this posting to look at their bookshelves and see how many of their church growth and evangelism books describe a technique that worked at an earlier time or for a particular church. How many of them have you re-read in the past five years because of the timelessness of their truths? As I looked at my own bookshelves I found too many such books that are really outdated and of little use in this postmodern world in which we live.

How much better would it be to read material that would help nourish our own souls? It seems to me that a growing minister will often lead a growing church because there will be an inner spirituality that will attract others. I mentioned a book in my previous post that I'm currently reading during my devotional time each day. This book is challenging reading, and I certainly do not agree with everything the author says, but it is stretching me in new ways. I am forced to think about why I do not believe a section of the book or a sentence, and such thinking helps lead to growth. It is also making me rethink my own relationship with God and look at the relationship through new eyes. That too leads to growth. I have already found another book on my bookshelf that I will read next during my devotional times. The interesting thing about these two books is that they have been on my bookshelves for well over a decade, but I've never read them. During that time I have read hundreds of other books that were written to help me be a better minister, but I had continually by-passed these two books that were written to help grow me spiritually.

None of this means you should stop reading the other material designed to help you better lead your church. Certainly you should be reading the books I wrote!!!! I just want to encourage you today to balance out your reading between the books that will help you better lead your church with those that will help grow your soul.

Friday, September 11, 2009

A pure conscience

For my devotional reading I am currently reading J. I. Packer's book, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life. This is not an easy read. In fact, I've tried to read it before and never could get more than half way through the book. This time it is really speaking to where I am in my life. It's still not an easy read, but it is challenging my own spiritual walk with God in ways that can only be beneficial. In today's reading I came across this section

In Western society as a whole, conscience is in decay;apostasy has set in and hence, as always when faith fails, moral standards are falling...In the Christian church, consciences should be sharp and alert; but are they? It is to be feared that we whom Christ calls to be the salt of the earth have lost much of our proper savor. Are evangelicals noted these days for goodness and integrity? Are we distinguished in society for sensitiveness to moral issues, and compassion towards those in need? Do our preachers, earnest and eloquent as they may be, win for themselves the name that God gave to Noah - 'a preacher of righteousness (2 Pet. 2:3)?...Once Christians were taught to commune with their consciences daily, in the regular discipline of self-examination under the word of God; but how much of this remains today? Do we not constantly give evidence of our neglect of this secret discipline by unprincipled and irresponsible public conduct?

Before reading this morning I saw on the news a politician who was recently caught on a live mike telling another politician about his sexual conquests with two women neither of whom were his wife. Once the news broke he confessed how sorry he was for his behavior, but listening to him tell of his relationships with these women he didn't sound sorry. Could he have only been sorry he had been caught? In recent months we have heard similar stories of various individuals in leadership positions caught in relationships outside of their marriages. Of course, we cannot point too many fingers at the politicians because we've also heard story after story about ministers caught in similar situations. Everyone is sorry after they've been caught, but none seem to have been too sorry while they were enjoying their relationships.

The conscience is a funny thing. When a person first contemplates doing something they often know is wrong the conscience cautions them loud and long to not yield to the temptation. Even if they do yield, their conscience begins to convict them of how wrong that behavior or action was. Many times there is remorse. But, when our conscience is ignored long enough it becomes silent. The alarms no longer go off, and we no longer feel conviction for our wrong actions. At that point we are in a dangerous place in our lives. We no longer hear the voice of the Spirit trying to guide us in paths of righteousness.

In order to have a pure conscience, we need to examine it on a regular basis. In the Psalms David cried out asking God to search his heart to see if there was any wicked way in him. That is a prayer that we all, minister and lay person alike, need to pray on a regular, perhaps even daily, basis. And when we do pray that prayer we need to take some time to listen for that voice that does begin to convict us of sin in our lives, and we need to listen for the directions in righteousness that will come, and then we need to be obedient to what we hear. Doing this will be a little like reading Packer's book. It won't be easy, but it will be beneficial to our souls.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Major challenge for small churches

One of the primary challenges for many small churches is the expectation that people have for their churches. Larger churches are able to provide numerous ministries that appeal to many people. If smaller churches try to compete with that they will end up offering a number of mediocre ministries which usually satisfies no one. As a result, they will often see numbers of their members leaving for the larger church with its many ministries. How does the smaller church compete?

The fact is they can't compete and should stop trying. A small church can accomplish more by doing less but doing it with excellence. Vision is important for every church, but it may be most important for the smaller church. A clear vision of its purpose can lead it to develop the one or two ministries that will enable it to fulfill that vision. It doesn't feel that it has to offer a multitude of ministries because many of those ministries would not accomplish its vision anyway. Such a church can focus its limited resources on the one or two things that will accomplish its purpose.

This can also help a small church's esteem. No longer will they feel bad about not being able to offer a multitude of ministries. They can feel good that the ones they do offer are done with excellence and are making a real difference in the lives of the people they serve. People will have the opportunity to serve in ministries that make best use of their gifts and passions, and they will feel good about the work they are doing.

I would encourage church leaders to look closely at the ministries their churches offer and ask some tough questions. Are these ministries being done with excellence or are we forced to do an average job because we lack resources to do them better? Are they making a difference in people's lives? Do they fulfill the commonly shared vision of the congregation? If we stopped doing this ministry tomorrow would anyone really notice? What would be the impact if we never offered this ministry again? As you begin to eliminate some ministries that are really not productive you can put more resources in the ones that remain, and that should have a positive impact on your church and the people you are trying to reach.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Family ministry

Several years ago I heard Bill Gothard make a statement that made a major impact on my ministry. He said "We have become a weak nation because we have weak churches. We have weak churches because we have weak families. We have weak families because we have weak fathers, and we have weak fathers because no one has ever taught them how to be the men God created them to be." I immediately saw the truth in what he was saying and began to work on how that could be addressed in our church.

In my opinion the number one task of every church is to help persons come to a relationship with Jesus and then become a fully-devoted disciple of Him. The second task for the church is to help our families be the healthy families God intended. Certainly, there is no one else given the task of leading people to faith in Christ other than the church, and who else is doing anything positive to assist the family but the church and faith-based organizations such as Focus on the Family? The church may be involved in many good tasks, but these two, in my opinion, must be at the forefront of all we do.

One of the things I did for many years at Hebron was to preach a series of sermons every year on the family between Mother's Day and Father's Day. These messages would address various aspects of family life and the relationships that exist in the family. The Bible contains a wealth of information on family life, and it was never difficult to develop a series of messages on this topic.

I also believe it is important to focus on the men of the family. In too many of our churches the men are missing, and I am convinced they are the key to reaching the family. When Promise Keepers began we arranged to take a group of men every year to a nearby stadium for their gathering. It was always a high point for me, and I believe it was for our men as well. We began a Saturday morning breakfast twice a month. After breakfast and chitchat we would study the book Disciplines of a Godly Man by R. Kent Hughes. We spent months discussing that book.

I am convinced there are few things you can do that will have a bigger impact on your church than getting men involved in Bible study and helping them address the issues that men face. It will take some intentional work on your part to make that happen, but the return will be well worth it. I would also encourage you to intentionally focus on how to improve your ministry to the family. Virtually everything in today's society attacks the traditional family, and our families need help in order to survive in today's environment. Your church may be the only hope they have in your community.

As you begin thinking about your fall and winter programming, let me encourage you to consider how your church can better minister to the men and families in your church and community.

Friday, September 4, 2009


What do you do to stay motived in ministry? There are so many challenges for bivocational ministers and so many thing that constantly demand our attention it is easy to grow weary in our work. I find there are times when I need some outside stimulus to help keep me motivated to press on. One of the tools that I find to be helpful is attending motivational seminars. In October my daughter and I will attend one of these seminars.

This all day event will host speakers like General Colin Powell, Terry Bradshaw, Zig Ziglar, Rick Pitino, Rudy Guiliani, Robert Schuller, and Laura Bush among others. Each speaker is in person and will be sharing from their specific areas of leadership expertise. The amazing thing to me is that the cost is only $4.95 to attend this event. Having attended a number of these in the past I can assure you that five minutes from any of these speakers is worth much more than that. I always leave these events refreshed and with new ideas to try. I usually leave with a few more books and resources as well.

Our daughter and I have attended a number of these seminars in the past which makes it a fun father-daughter day out. It's not often a father gets to spend a day with his grown daughter doing something they both enjoy, so it's always a special time. In fact, to make it more special I spend a few extra dollars to get us premium seating and some other special rewards to make the day even more enjoyable.

A motivational seminary won't cure all your woes, but it does help charge up your batteries for a while. It helps take your mind away from some of your challenges so you can focus more on the possibilities that exist in each of our ministries. You will laugh, possibly more than you have in some time. And if you come away with even one new thought it is well worth it. Finally, if you can share the day with someone special in your life it is like frosting on the cake.

These seminars are held across the country. Check out your Sunday paper and see if one is coming to your area soon.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Salary for bivocational ministry

A church called today asking for advice about a salary package for a bivocational minister. This church has had fully-funded pastors for many years, but they are considering a bivocational candidate for their open pastorate. From what the committee chair told me the candidate would be a good match for their church, has roots in the community, and is very interested in the position. The problems the committee is facing is they do not know how to structure a fair salary for a bivocational minister and there are people in the church who are upset that they are only going to have a "part-time" pastor.

The chair and I discussed the "part-time" issue, and she is in full agreement with me that this person will be able to meet all their pastoral needs. I gave her some information to share with others in the church and offered to come and speak to their congregation about the benefits of bivocational ministry and try to answer any concerns they might have.

Regarding the salary issue I encouraged the church to be as fair as possible with the salary package they offer this candidate. Because he has insurance through his other employer they can save some money there, but this is not the time for this church to think they should short change their new pastor on salary so they can fatten their church bank account. I have seen too many churches do this, and eventually it creates a sense on the part of the pastor that his or her ministry isn't appreciated. I doubt that many bivocational ministers go into the ministry for financial reasons, but I think most of us will admit that the salary we are paid provides us with a sense of how much we are appreciated for what we do. In a 2004 survey I did of bivocational ministers one minister reported he had not received a single salary increase in seven years of ministry in his church despite the fact that the attendance and offerings had gone up every year since he had been there. His survey responses showed a very dispirited minister who was trying to be faithful to his calling despite feeling that his ministry was taken for granted by the people who had called him.

Who determines the salary you receive, and what are the criteria they use to arrive at those figures? How satisfied are you and your family with the salary package you receive? In what areas do you think your church could do better?

As the number of bivocational ministers continues to increase this will become an increasingly important issue. I think it is important for us to be proactive in this matter, and I am hopeful that we can learn from one another. Share your answers with one another,and let's see if there are some common ways we can be advocates for fair salary packages for one another.