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How do I do that?

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When I was writing my second ever sermon, the first draft had most of what I was saying. The four steps of discipleship were there; and the one I was seeing as essential, finding God’s presence first, was there. To pick that up from the Biblical passages that were going to be read was easy enough; although getting that focus might have been slightly less straightforward.

But my first draft was seriously lacking. What wasn’t there was the list of suggestions as to how one could find God’s presence: pausing, receiving communion, praying, etc. That list got included after my curate asked me one very simple question. That question was:

“How do I do that?”


I was quick on my feet. I could give, more or less, the list that made it to my sermon. In short, I knew the answers; but looking back, I fell that list was rhetorical – as rhetorical as the question was. We both knew the answers. The very fact, however, that I hadn’t thought to unpack it means one of two things: either my knowledge of these was only superficial and intellectual, and I did not consider them seriously enough to consider them worthy of dwelling on; or they were integrated enough in my own life that they felt too natural to make explicit. I don’t know which one it is; I hope it is the latter rather than the former. But what matters here, as a preacher, is that for some members of the congregation, neither will apply. For these members, it is crucial that I address the How question – else, the sermon remains theoretical, unapplied, and, ultimately, dead.

Preachers, make sure that your sermon is not a succession of theological points (unless you are trying to inspire awe of God in that particular sermon!), and make  sure that for each and every point that involves your congregation, you answer – even if in some limited way – the “How” question. It can be a list. It can be a testimony. It can be something else – it doesn’t have to be exhaustive (that would just be arrogant and overly ambitious!)

You see, that “How” question is crucial because it allows theoretical, intellectual knowledge – mantras, as it were – to become effective in our lives. I was reminded of that a few weeks ago. I was talking with a friend; and in the course of conversation, I mentioned the image of someone taking on more and more bags upon his back, when he can just lay it down at the Cross.

It is a fairly common image, I’m sure. And when I first heard it, my mind was full of “Amens”. I thought the image was faithful and very well thought of, and I was content to leave it there; filing it away as something I could use later myself.

Then, my friend asked me “How do I do that?”

That was a violent question. It made me realise that I had been paying lip service to this image (which I still think is a good image), but never considered to apply it myself. In answering my friend’s question, I realised that letting go is difficult; and that something that seems simple is, sometimes, just the opposite. That night, I learned a whole lot more.

That was a raw question. In it, the deep, deep desire for my friends to let go of his worries and lay  them down at the Cross was bare. He wouldn’t have asked that question if he wasn’t filled with the all-consuming passion to actually do it. Asking “How” is not an intellectual pursuit, it becomes the outlet of our souls’ rawest desires.

Sadly, asking “How” is not that common, when it comes to spiritual things. Possibly because it makes one feel silly – after all, if it weren’t obvious, wouldn’t it have been explained already? Possibly because it engages us more than we feel comfortable with.

It shouldn’t. So start asking “How?”; you may find you are a blessing to the person who, actually, hadn’t thought to apply what he was talking about.


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Ruckus: it’s a friendly word. Fills the mouth nicely, rolls right off the tongue. Sounds oddly Northern, which makes it obviously better. It sounds pleasant.

The problem is, what it means is far from pleasant. It means commotion (1). But it trivialises that commotion too. It makes it look like it’s much a do about, ultimately nothing. It focuses the attention on the actual disruption, and away from what gets people to cause the ruckus.


Picture in the public domain – source: Wikimedia

Imagine those headlines on a church bulletin:

  • the new floral arrangement caused a ruckus.
  • ruckus after the sofa is moved to another area of the chaplaincy.
  • choir leads ruckus after they are asked to sing Shine, Jesus shine and Be thou my vision in 4:4.

Laughable, right? How about this, then:

  • slight wording change leads to massive ruckus in Christianity.

History has taught us that the ruckus, in this case, was far bigger than in any of the previous cases. The filioque clause, the addition of one single word (!) to the Nicene Creed, led to the first significant schism in the history of the Church. But what makes this different to the other cases, other than the scale of the consequences? What makes the rejection of this one word – or, not to take sides in the debate, the desperate clinging on to it – less ridiculous than the dispute over the time signature of Be thou my vision?

The answer is simple: it just means that we look past the cause. It is widely commented that the schism was the culmination of tensions running far deeper. This does not detract the importance of the actual point as to whether the Spirit also proceeds from the Son; but it makes that point – from a human perspective – the symptom of a pastoral crisis, not just an argued point where one side is right and the other just has to accept it and move on.

The new floral arrangement may not be important in itself, but the change that it represents might be for some parishioners, because it may represent the end of an era and the start of something that is both scary and daunting. The movement of the sofa might be mistakenly read as a rejection. Some of them we may not understand: I sure can’t think why people wouldn’t want to sing Shine Jesus shine, even if it’s been played every single week before. But for these, our pastoral duty is to read into these situations, to probe and to listen (rather than making up our own interpretation!), and, yes, sometimes, to give in and wait before putting in a new floral arrangement. Because, even though it is nothing more than a symptom, when you run a temperature, you try to keep it down as well as trying to get rid of whatever’s causing the temperature.

Now, not every dispute is a ruckus. There are some things which are just plain wrong (like, for instance, offering coffee after church). But I’m sure that most are just that: so here’s two things I’d like you to take away from this.

  • Don’t be quick to dismiss a ruckus as over-the-top. That counts whether you’re in a position of leadership or not. Listen, support, and love as much as you can, and try to see behind the symptom.
  • Don’t cause a ruckus. Make sure that what you’re angry about is actually what you’re angry about. And then seek support.

Fun fact about the word ruckus: even though it sounds like raucous and means something quite as disruptive/noisy/unpleasant; the two words are unrelated! In fact, ruckus comes from ruction and rumpus. And Northern though it sounds, it appears to be an American word. Which is the perfect opportunity to say hello to my friends and readers in the colonies ;-)



Believe it or not, that’s the title of an infamous book, which describes all the insider knowledge of relationships. At the risk of disappointing some of you, this post is not a detailed critique of a book which lists, among its female roles, “eating pickles”; and which has a chapter titled “Don’t marry your best friend unless you’re gay”. What I want to focus on, is that the authors went to the lengths of coining the word “marriable”. A ridiculous word, but why?


Because it suggests two things: firstly, that some people just cannot be married regardless of whether they might want to; and secondly, that once people have applied all the recommendations coming from the  book, there’s nothing more they can do; and everything that fails to happen is somebody else’s fault.

Let’s face it: the target population of Marriable (which is, incredibly, a serious book) is people who don’t wish to become marriable. They wish to become married.

It’s easy enough to notice it in such a ridiculous example; but anyone in a position of leadership is guilty of the same sin. How many of these words have you used recently?

  • understandable
  • transferable
  • applicable
  • usable
  • likeable
  • accessible

And I’m sure there’s many more. If you write your sermon so that it is understandable, or applicable, you’re stopping shy of your real aim. Rather, you should write it so that it is understood, and so that it is applied. Otherwise, you will find it easy to write independently of your congregation; and when no change happens after you have preached, the cop-out of “they just weren’t listening” is far, far too easy.

Be bold, and plan boldly.

To you who don’t think you are in a position of leadership, you’re not off the hook. Firstly, you are wrong: you are in a position of leadership, to some of your friends at least; but you may not be planning that leadership. Secondly, you are at the receiving end of these sermons. And if you start assessing a sermon in terms of its applicability, but not attempting to apply it yourself, you are not benefiting from it to its full extent.

Let’s get rid of the “-able” suffix. What word are you eliminating?

When they don’t get it

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I’m studying education. I know there is a world of difference between what is to be taught (the curriculum, of sorts), what is taught (what you think you’re saying) and what is learnt (what people  keep from it).


Photo: zimpenfish, reused under CC license

From what I hear, the discrepancy between the latter two is something that preachers experience. A lot. The stories of people going up to the preacher telling them: “I loved that part about how we should not tithe if we don’t feel like it. God loves a cheerful giver indeed”, when the sermon was explaining why we should be cheerful about giving. Or “I  loved how you explained how Catholics are heretics”, when you were actually trying to explain they weren’t.

These discrepancies are often frustrating. As pastors, teachers of sorts, we have a responsibility to make sure that we communicate efficiently, and a responsibility to ensure that what we are trying to say is heard. When that doesn’t happen, we may feel like we have failed. But that view is one I wish to challenge, because it puts the preacher as the sole mediator of the Word: it suggests that everything that the congregation will hear will need to have been pre-digested by the leadership team.

Last Sunday, someone came to me to talk about my sermon from the week before, telling me about how it connected with his experience and that he felt that the person in the pulpit was actually understanding how they were feeling. “Great!”, I thought, a bit full of myself. And then he went on to describe the specifics of his situation, which was as far removed as what I had in mind when writing the sermon as possible! I was talking about fear of the unknown, he was talking about repeated stress.

Should I take this as a sign that my sermon was a failure? Quite the opposite. I take it as a positive sign: a sign that my sermon was aligned with the Word enough that it could just gently guide people to and through the passage, but crucially, that it was the passage that did all the work. The Bible is greater than all of us. That’s why we read it more than just the once, and that’s why we connect to it in different ways; and, for preachers, that’s why we shouldn’t aim to possess it, or to box it in.

To put it in a different way, it is the gap between Scripture and the congregation’s lives that needs to be closed; in priority over the gap between the preacher and the congregation. The gap between what is to be taught and what is learnt; in priority over the gap between what is taught and what is learnt. Of course, the two often work together; but if someone in the congregation is brought closer to the Word through a different path than us, let us still rejoice over it rather than try to bring them back to our way! As long, of course, as they do connect with the ultimate Truth (which may not be the case in the examples given at the start…)

And it feels great! Because through that, we are reminded that, on the one hand, the transformative or exhortative power does not come from us, so that we as preachers may feel anxious about nothing; and that on the other hand, what we’re saying matters and connects with people!

What’s your experience of people not getting it?

The awkward middle


Churches have to cater for, roughly speaking, two populations: the newcomers, people who have never been to this particular church before; and the established congregaion, who need perhaps more challenging than welcoming. Of course, the picture painted here is very sketchy: it doesn’t consider the nuances of visitors or occasional worshippers. But even taking these into account, there are roughly two groups: the new faces and the familiar faces.

All the churches I’ve been to embrace their mission to welcome all. I remember walking alone into church many times (as a visitor in many cases, but also as a first-time visitor) and every single time, I was introduced to many people, including more often than not the pastor, and feeling that people were taking a genuine interest in me. Tea and coffee after the service was also always appreciated. Especially with biscuits.

All the churches I’ve been to also have a lot of activities going on for their members: lots of ways to serve, midweek groups, community action, etc.: the church is not a continually repeated welcome. A good church spurs individual spiritual growth, and does not start over from scratch every week.

Of course, there is a tension for church leaders between serving newcomers and serving regular faces: how much should they explain, say, the structure of the service? Plug mid-week groups? There’s a danger of boring the regulars with the same information every week, and a danger of newcomers not knowing what to do. There are many practical ways of solving this: print the information – and, first and foremost, encourage the congregation itself to be welcoming to new faces, etc. It shouldn’t all come from the top!

So far, so good: we have churches that manage to cater for two distinct populations fairly well. The problem is: you don’t suddenly change from new face into regular face. There is an awkward middle: one where you haven’t, for instance, decided to get stuck in in that particular church, but no longer get the welcome you did as a “new face”. One where you’re neither an old face nor a new face. My experience is that most churches are in denial about this awkward middle, probably because they don’t know how to address it.

There are churches that outright try to skip the awkward middle by making newcomers sign up to a wealth of activities on their first day. Or at least to the mailing list, which then gets indiscriminately used. For all intents and purposes, once you’re on that list, you are no longer seen as a newcomer. This strategy works with a very limited population: those who (a) know they won’t be going to a different church, and (b) have a passion for church life that is burning enough for them to unreservedly sign up when offered. But there will be a large-ish number who will not want to sign up straight away. I tend to fall in that category. And for us, it is damaging, because we feel a certain guilt at not having signed up when it was first offered, imagine we have missed the train, and end up disengaged with church activities.

There are churches that fall on the other end of the spectrum. The awkward middle is simply an extended newcomer phase, and there is a definite shyness in sharing either opportunities for service or mid-week groups. Transitioning from newcomer to known face becomes, then, frustrating.

As far as I can tell, there is no magic formula that will sort out the issue of the awkward middle for everyone at once – simply because when that awkward middle happens is very much dependent on the individual. But here are a few ideas:

  • most importantly, know and care for all individuals coming to your church. Remember what they tell you, but don’t let that stop you from going and talking to them – there is always more to say! Only ever offer further involvement in the framework of that caring relationship. This means that you should know at least a few things about whom you’re inviting.
  • as a church member, be transparent about your extra activities. Invite newcomers to non-threatening, one-off (even if repeated one-offs!) events: do not call them “small group”, or anything that would suggest that once you go there, you must continue to do so.
  • remember that small groups, or whatever other activity you get involved in, is not an end in itself: community and growth tend to be the purpose. If that is clear,
  • as a church/team leader, make it easy for people to help out “on the day”, without commiting to further service on further weeks. This could be a slot on the rota that is deliberately left empty (help with tea, or with welcome, etc.)
  • periodically ask for help in various specific teams. Do not limit the notices to the “big jobs” held by one person only, and that feel out of reach!

Any other ideas?