Normal sermon prep? Really?

In Sermon Prep: A Week in One Life, Stephen Um describes his normal process of preparing a sermon. Although there’s some helpful stuff in here, especially his last four points, and although he says “every pastor’s week looks a little different,” I think a lot of pastors will find it quite amusing – and perhaps a little disturbing too.

The amusing bit is to have what looks like about 20 hours to prepare a sermon. It reminds me of the time I heard Paul Tripp tell gasping pastors that no sermon should be preached with less than 35 hours of preparation! Talk about air leaving the room.

In my first congregation I had to prepare a minimum of three new sermons every week (every other week it was four). In my second pastorate, it was a steady diet of three sermon preps a week. Three is probably the norm for most UK pastors, mostly in small congregations with no staff. 15-20 hours to prepare a sermon sounds to us like an over-realized eschatology!

The disturbing bit for me was beginning sermon preparation with a group consultation rather than face to face with God and His Word. Stephen says:

For me, sermon prep starts on Tuesday morning when I gather my preaching staff (assistant pastors) for sermon discussions. We meet for about two and a half hours to read the text, talk it over, and pray that it would begin to shape us….By the end of our discussion, we will have determined a basic outline for the sermon, a general idea of where the sermon is headed.

I know its become strangely common for pastors to circulate their almost-completed sermon to fellow elders and other pastors before preaching, but this seems to be taking the co-operative sermon prep model way too far. What’s happened to the man of God prayerfully seeking a text and message from God, wrestling with the text face-to-face with God, seeking its meaning in dependence upon the Holy Spirit, and coming out to the people of God with a divinely-given message: “Thus saith the Lord…”

I really hope and pray that this kind of collaborative-group-sermon prep will not become the norm. Instead, let’s get our patterns and practices from some of the more tried and tested homiletics models of the past. It might spare Peter, Paul, Knox, Calvin, Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones some grave-turning.

10 ways to praise…people

“I had not noticed how the humblest, and at the same time most balanced and capacious, minds, praised most, while the cranks, misfits and malcontents praised least” (C S Lewis).

Well, we’d better learn how to praise others then. And that’s where Sam Crabtree’s book, Practicing Affirmation, is so helpful. I needed this book and have to say that it’s been the most influential book upon me so far this year.

But I don’t think it’s just me that needs it. As I highlighted yesterday, praising others does not come easily to Scots in general; and, I’m afraid, certain cultural trends are influencing even positive optimistic Americans in the same direction.

Today I want to summarize ten characteristics of good affirmation that I picked out of Sam’s book, together with some supportive quotes.

1. Good affirmations are God-glorifying
Although the chief end of man is to glorify God, God is glorified in us when we affirm the work he has done and is doing in others. (1)

We rob God of praise by not pointing out his reflection in the people he has knit together in his image. (18)

2. Good affirmations are God-centered
Paul’s practice is, “I thank God for you.” Yes, the person is refreshed by the expression of gratitude, but God gets the glory. We are wise to give God-centered thank-yous and God-centered affirmations. (18)

3. Good affirmations don’t wait for salvation
In the same way that Yellowstone Park is a reflection of common grace, unregenerate persons reflect graces not intrinsic to themselves. To affirm the beauty of their character is to draw attention to the undeserved grace that God has bestowed upon them in the form of faint echoes of Jesus, even in the presence of as-of-yet unperfected flaws in those same individuals. (32)

4. Good affirmations are honest (67)
Commend only the commendable. Phony commendations are simply deceptive and manipulative flattery.

5. Good affirmations don’t wait for perfection
We can truthfully say to an unregenerate four-year-old, “God is helping you become more . . .” and fill in the blank with qualities such as: careful with your things (as a steward), cheerful around the house as a singer…While the child’s growth in character is commended, God is identified as the source. (21)

6. Good affirmations encourage progress
Affirmation is not about lowering standards. It is about commending incremental progress toward those standards as those standards reflect the character of Christ. (71)

Behaviors that are rewarded and celebrated are more likely to be repeated. (74)

7. Good affirmations help evangelism
Consider this: we risk damning others by not praising them. There are people around us in peril of hell unless we commend them…Affirmation is a way to gain a hearing for the Gospel…Our listeners will be more inclined to hear us is they believe we’re not angry at them, but grateful for them. (20-21)

8. Good affirmations open the door to change
Just as bedside manner is not the most important thing a doctor provides for his patients, without it patients may resist more important medicines and procedures. (38)

Here then is the simple principle: people are influenced by those who praise them. Giving praise does wonders for the other person’s sense of hearing. (54)

9. Good affirmations refresh the affirmer
Part of God’s mercy to us when we refresh others is the boomerang effect he has designed into the universe: “He who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.” (42)

10. Good affirmations build relationships
Geese honk encouragement and fly in formation. Skunks travel alone. (80)

I hope these quotes will encourage you to buy the book and join the geese. But what about when we have to be the skunk? What about the place of correction and rebuke? Sam devotes many pages to this in his book, and I hope to summarize his teaching on this tomorrow.

Then I want to round off the series by highlighting something that I think needs some clarification, and that’s a biblical definition of what constitutes a “good work.”

Practicing Affirmation Review (1): Scots don’t do praise
Practicing Affirmation Review (2): 10 ways to praise people
Practicing Affirmation Review (3): Is the “sandwich method” a lot of baloney?
Practicing Affirmation Review (4)Should we praise unbelievers?

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Credo Magazine
This is undoubtedly the most beautiful online Christian magazine I’ve come across.  Content is great too. Click on “Expand” for a fine example of how to use technology for God’s glory.

Dropping out: Is college worth the cost?
Alex Chediak highlights a 60 Minutes documentary on Peter Thiel’s offer of $100,000 to drop out of college and pursue your innovation. And if you do go to college, here’s an article by Alex on How to thrive in College.

Prayer as pastoral work
“Prayer is vital pastoral work. But it doesn’t make for a conventionally attractive conference topic today like leadership techniques, growth strategies, and cutting-edge programs.”

The Elisha Foundation
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Competitive Mothering
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Three ways the NT writers quote the OT
These lectures look worth a listen.

Scots don’t do praise

Scots don’t do praise. Of God, yes (a little), but not praise of one another.

Instead, we specialize in pulling people down, thinking the worst of others, and puncturing anyone who achieves anything. We can’t let a compliment pass without balancing it out with a criticism, and woe betide anyone who makes anything of life: “They’re just full of themselves!”

Where did this come from? Well, there’s no question that the cynical “build ‘em up to pull ‘em down” media is partly to blame. The evil envy of rabid and rampant socialism has also eaten away at much goodwill and gratitude towards achievement and achievers. But I’m afraid that a distorted Calvinism has also contributed to this soul-shriveling cynicism.

American Contrast
I didn’t see it so clearly when I was part of it, but with the distance of 5 years in the USA between me and my beloved homeland, it’s painfully easy to recognize and grieve over.

Perhaps it’s especially the contrast of my American sojourn that’s helped me to identify this Scottish ailment and my own contribution to it. Because if there’s one thing I can say about Americans, it’s that they are probably the most optimistic and cheerful people I’ve ever met.

True, this warm openness can sometimes lapse into gullibility: witness Jimmy Swaggert, Benny Hinn, Joel Osteen, Barings, Lehmans, J P Morgan, etc. They wouldn’t have got very far in Scotland, I can assure you. However, there’s something so refreshing about the American desire to think the best, say the best, and do the best to others. The cheerful celebration of success and the willingness to offer encouragement and praise is such a contrast to so much of Scottish life, and yes even of Scottish church life.

Distorted Calvinism
But why did I partly blame a distorted Calvinism for this? Well, the biblical belief in the total depravity of all men and women seems to have been sometimes misapplied to exclude any appreciation of humanity, even of redeemed humanity. “Don’t want to make him/her/them proud, do we!” Praise, encouragement, appreciation, affirmation is somehow thought to be incompatible with a belief in the universal sinfulness of men and women. To praise is to apostatize; to encourage is to backslide; to recognize achievement is to risk the damnation of the achiever.

If someone is praised, get a criticism in quick. If someone does well, remind them and everyone else of their previous failures. If someone gets a promotion, “Well, what goes up, must come down (hopefully).”

There are happy Scottish exceptions of course, but the corrosive effects of this negative spirit are wide and deep, and still plague me too.

Practicing Praise
That’s why I found Sam Crabtree’s Practicing Affirmation so challenging and yet so helpful. I’m amazed that this book has not had much wider “affirmation.” As John Piper says in the foreword, it’s a “one-of-a-kind book.” Do you know any other book that deals with the subject of how to praise others and to do so as a habit of life? No neither do I; and yet, as Sam demonstrates, it’s a topic with lots of Scriptural support and explanation, together with huge consequences for our families, friendships, and fellowships.

And although I think Scots like myself need to practice affirmation far more than Americans, there’s no question that American Christians increasingly need it too.

Worrying trends
I say that because among other worrying recent trends in America, I’m afraid that the celebration of good is weakening and a cynical critical spirit is spreading. I can’t say for sure where this has come from, but the inundation of bad news at home and abroad, the hostile hate-filled political climate, unjust corporate rewards, and our President’s regular planting and cultivating of class and economic envy have all played their heart-chilling, soul-shrinking roles.

So, if you want to learn what affirmation is, how to practice it, and what blessings it will bring to your life, stay tuned to the blog this week as I review Sam’s book. Or better still, buy the book and start praising God for His work in and through you and others. And maybe praise a few people along the way too.

Practicing Affirmation Review (1): Scots don’t do praise
Practicing Affirmation Review (2): 10 ways to praise people
Practicing Affirmation Review (3): Is the “sandwich method” a lot of baloney?
Practicing Affirmation Review (4)Should we praise unbelievers?

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Classical School Reading List
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Preaching to a mixed congregation
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How to backslide in nine easy steps
Most of us don’t need nine steps to do it.