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The Week-est Link, Dec. 14

1. There is no weekly link list this week. I want to leave up my tribute to my grandfather. I was honored and encouraged by the comments left yesterday, and though I realize that some people will already have read this memoir for my grandfather, perhaps there were some out there who did not. I wrote this piece not simply to reflect on my Grandpa, though, but also to prompt thought in my readers’ minds about the legacy that they will leave behind. As Roy Ciampa so kindly noted, my grandfather’s life touched many beyond his family. What a testimony, and what a challenge to those of us who still can shape the mark we will leave on this fading earth.

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A Young Preacher’s Thoughts on Preaching: Manuscripts, Notes, or Extemporaneous?

This is one of the hardest things to figure out as a young preacher: how much should I rely on a manuscript? How much should I speak off the top of my head? How much should I study and then just talk as I remember my points? These are difficult questions for the young preacher to answer.

My suggestion would be to do this.

  1. Start your preaching career using a manuscript.
  2. As you get more opportunities to preach, change from a full manuscript to a detailed outline.
  3. As you grow familiar with the outline, shift from a detailed outline to a less detailed outline.
  4. When you work well with a pretty sparse outline, you’ll need to personally determine whether you can go off the top of your head or if you’ll stick to a less detailed outline.

I should note that some guys do not make the shift from 3 to 4. That, in my opinion, is fine. So long as we give our people a rich feeding from the Word, and so long as we are preaching to them in a natural, unaffected, and unchoppy style, then we’re fine. The key in my view with preaching is to communicate rich, affective truth in a style that is natural for each of us. We will all preach differently, with varying levels of intensity, drama, formality of speech, and so on, but so long as we are preaching the point of a passage, pointing our hearers to the passage’s fulfillment in Christ, speaking in a natural way, and proceeding through the sermon in a natural, smooth style, then I think that we are doing pretty well on the whole.

Manuscript preaching has come back into style, and I certainly can see the merits of it. Less trip-ups, less forgetfulness, less “uhhhhh” as you grasp for the right illustration, less tendency to freelance for so long that your sermon goes much longer than you thought it would. However, it also has some significant drawbacks: manuscript sermons are often more read than preached, one loses some connection with the congregation (unless one is an exceptional reader), and the whole thing can generally feel scripted. In general, it’s my personal opinion that it is best for most of us to use a detailed outline or sparser outline, and to adopt a natural, more fluid preaching style that still gives people a rich exegetical diet by which to make application. More on this tomorrow.

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A Young Preacher’s Thoughts on Preaching: Fresh Insights

Much is made in the current day of preaching the basic truths of the Bible. This we must do. However, it is my opinion that the best preaching is not simply that which is true, but that which digs very deeply into the text and the context of the text to unearth fresh insights or approach familiar truths from fresh angles.

In conservative and reformed circles, many preachers have reacted against liberal disbelief in Scripture by focusing great attention on preaching the point of a passage. Many preachers take pride in the fact that they say nothing new and only declare the counsel of Scripture. I think that there is much to be commended in this line of thinking. Fanciful, allegorical or just plain unbelieving preaching is harmful and ungodly. We must take great pains to preach the point of a given text and to take our homiletical, theological, and applicational cues from the text from which we preach. We must always assume that the Bible has a tremendous amount to say, that it in fact has inexhaustible riches to consider, and that it is the all-sufficient speech of a divine God to a decidedly human audience in desperate need of nothing else but this divine speech.

However, there is a mistake that I think can be made among those who share such thinking as that outlined above. No group has a monopoly on truth and all will fall into error at some point in their thinking. The particular group of which I speak can, I think, lose sight of freshness due to an overemphasis on faithfulness. Do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that there should be a limit to how faithful we are in our preaching! I am saying that we can so emphasize preaching the exact point of Scripture and can so rejoice in our lack of fanciful preaching that we actually become lazy in our preaching, fail to really unearth and situate the text, and end up preaching general truths each week that fail to move our listeners. It is our responsibility as preachers, I would argue, to so know the languages, to so study the commentaries, to so meditate on the text, that we preach the great truths of the faith each week but with detail and insight that only hard work can yield. I’ll elaborate more on this tomorrow, but for now, the pot should be stirred. It is not enough merely to say the true thing as a Christian preacher; we must go beyond this, and give our people a fresh meal of truth each week.

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The Power of a Good Sunday School Teacher

From Truett Cathy’s book It’s Better to Build Boys Than to Mend Men:

“I was thirteen years old when God worked through Theo Abby, my Sunday school teacher, to change my life. In a real sense, I had been “fatherless.”

My father was alive. In fact, he was home every night, and I never knew him to gamble or drink or cheat on my mother. But he never told me, “I love you.” And when I needed help, like the time when I was sick on a rainy Sunday morning and had to get my newspapers delivered, I knew not to even ask him. As I grew toward manhood, my father and I never discussed the difficult issues of life.

Then Theo Abby became my teacher and my friend. Occasionally he visited the federal housing project where I lived to see me and other boys in our class, and he invited us to go with him and his son Ted to his lakeside cabin. There he modeled with Ted a loving father-son relationship.

As an adult I remembered Mr. Abby’s example and decided to teach boys in Sunday school. Like Mr. I kept in touch with the boys through the week by in­viting the entire class to be my guests at the Dwarf House, my first restaurant, one night a week. I soon began to see how children bursting with potential can wither on the vine without adequate guidance from adults.

Eleven-year-old Harry Brown, whose quiet de­meanor reminded me of myself as a child, had a father like mine, distant and hard to please. When Mr. Brown abandoned the family altogether, Mrs. Brown was left alone to bring up five boys. She did a remarkable job, and I tried to give Harry special attention in class or during our weekly dinners. I set goals for my class in their Bible reading, and Harry met every one. His mother and I encouraged him at every step. Then my wife, Jeannette, and I moved from the neighborhood, and I didn’t see Harry for more than twenty years. By the time we met again, he and his wife, Brenda, had become foster parents, providing the fatherly love and two-parent stability for oth­ers that Harry had missed as a teenager.”

A couple of days ago I mentioned how I had been impacted by my Sunday School teacher, Miss Elsie Dennison. Here’s more testimony of the power of a teacher. Something to think about for those out there who invest week by week in the lives of children. Your efforts may seem small and worthless, but they can change and profoundly influence the course of young lives.

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The Week-est Link, Nov. 2

1. A fascinating and helpful interview with Dr. Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and SBC patriarch. A hat-tip to Dr. Jim Hamilton for the link. Hamilton posed a number of excellent questions to his boss, Dr. Patterson, and Patterson answered them with clarity and insight. The debate on contextualization waxes hot in the current day, and the SWBTS president weighs in helpfully, directing us to focus not so much on outward things but on the inward condition of the heart.

2. Go to Andrew Peterson’s website, listen to his music, and then, if you are as impressed by it as I am, buy it. Andrew is a folk-country-alternative kind of artist who writes beautiful poetry for lyrics and then sings it with earnest feeling. Like some in the folk camp, his voice can take a little getting used to. But it is worth it to try, because he has great theology and he expresses it in eloquent songs and memorable melodies. I highly encourage you to buy his stuff–you’ll be encouraged and challenged in your faith if you do. He is particularly good at putting biblical stories to song.

3. In a completely different musical realm, here’s a link to an incredible song by the group One Republic. Click on “Apologize.” I know very little about this band, but Tyler W., who sometimes comments on this blog, tells me that they’re from Colorado, they’re pretty good, and they have a new cd coming out. I can’t vouch for the band’s overall message and the cleanness of their lyrics, but I can say that this song, with a beat by the producer Timbaland, is sonically powerful. This is one of those songs I can listen to eight times in a row. It seems to capture the emotion of angry heartbreak very well. Not that I’ve been feeling that, but when the music is powerful, I can’t resist…

Neither can I resist a good weekend–hope you have just that.

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The Week-est Link

With that title proudly worked out, I can now give you my weekly link roundup.

1. Provocative article by Thomas Sowell on whether prestigious colleges really deliver the education people think they do. There are of courses necessary nuances to Sowell’s argument, but his basic idea sounds right: oftentimes, prestigious institutions of great size offer a subpar education relative to smaller, perhaps less well-known, teaching-oriented universities. A good commentary on the insatiable appetite most of us Americans have for status. We are so obsessed with status that we overlook certain factors in making decisions–like, for example, the education our students will receive (a minor consideration, after all). In our lust for association with prestige, in our haste to drop name after glorious name, we sacrifice quality to the gods of status. This is a ridiculous problem in American society that is only accelerated in a society that is losing its moral framework and its understanding of what is truly important–God, family, church, country.

2. A podcast interview I did with Tony Kummer of Said at Southern. Tony very kindly approached me and asked if he could interview me about my experience at SBTS. After recovering from a startled state due to a keen understanding of how little my my life and work deserves an interview on a well-read blog, I consented. The result is 27 minutes of Kummer and Strachan, and quite possibly the least downloaded podcast of all time–though I must say, I really appreciate Tony’s kindness and interest in me. He does an excellent job with the podcast, and I strongly encourage you to listen to them all.

3. If you like beautiful piano-based soundtracks, and I do, you should buy the soundtrack to the movie Girl with a Pearl Earring. I have not watched the movie and thus cannot vouch for it, though I can say that I love the film’s score, and often listen to it at work. Haunting and continually interesting to listen to.

There you go–have a great weekend.

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When the Bell Fell Silent: The Church, the Parachurch, and Christian Witness to the American University, Pt. 4

Do you have ambition? Do you have energy? Do you have a vision?

If you are a young man, I want to ask you those three questions. You should answer them honestly. Don’t misunderstand. I’m not referring in these question to worldly ambition, energy, and vision. I’m talking about godly ambition, Godward energy, righteous vision. Do you have these qualities? If you don’t, are you developing them in yourself? Or do you simply evaluate yourself, find a lack of ambition and vision, and thereby excuse yourself from ever doing something significant? You have to answer these questions. Only you truly know the state of your heart.

I ask these questions because I sense a need for young men (defined as 20-35) to get a vision for life. Many among my generation did not have a father around to impart a broad-ranging plan for life, to cast a vision for the lives of their sons. As a result, many young men do not simply dream small. Many young men–even godly men, even seminarians!–don’t dream at all. They lope through seminary, continually fighting laziness in their classes, unsure of themselves, uncertain as to what the future holds, afraid to dream, certain that any hint of ambition or zeal is impious. We have, in short, a lack of testosterone. We need to move away from over-realized pietism that views any inkling of ambition as wrong. It is not wrong to be ambitious in a kingdom sense, to cast a vision for one’s life that centers around one’s understanding of one’s gifts and the confirmation of that understanding by the member of one’s local church. It is right to do so. It is essential to do so. It is godly to dream big, to think of all that one could possibly do for the kingdom, to daydream about spending one’s life in totality through the exercise of the gifts God has given us. Though I am thinking of my context here, my seminary setting, this is true for all Christians. So many of us lack a vision for life and assume that all ambition and energy is impious unless directly related to our devotions. This is not true. The apostles were ambitious for the kingdom. They spread the gospel with zeal and energy and vision and life and courage. They were anything but timid and overly pious and hesitant and unsure. They struck out in boldness and ambition, and you know the result. The world turned on its head.

I say all this to close this mini-series on Christian witness to the college campus. I see such an energy and liveliness in the ministry of many parachurch groups to the university. Conversely, I see such a deadness and distractedness in the ministry of many local churches to the university. If things are to be righted here, we need a whole chunk of young men to catch a bold vision for the American college campus, and to gear themselves up to reach it. We need young men not simply to idle their time away in their dorm room, or goof off with their friends, or cry on their wife’s shoulder over their workload, but to rise up, construct an ambitious plan for their lives, and then work diligently to accomplish that plan. Don’t live life weakly. Live it boldly for the Lord. Set your sights on something very difficult to do, and then do all you can to reach that goal. You may find that you can’t reach it, and you’ll need to be realistic and honest as you go, and to listen to counsel and wisdom. But at least you’ll be able to look back on the last day and say, “I tried, Lord–I was zealous for your name. I gave it my all.”

If that’s true, you know what He will say.

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Friday Links

Here’s the link roundup for this Friday–I’ve got some gems for you:

1. Make sure that you go to the website of the New England Center for Expository Preaching. If you have not heard of this vital ministry, well, here’s your introduction. NECEP is doing an important work in New England. Essentially, future pastors training for ministry come to New England to preach for many weeks in various churches. The idea, according to Dave Ricard, the program director, is to “get expositional preaching in New England by getting expositional preachers to come preach.” This is a most worthy goal. I heartily support it, and I encourage men with a burden to preach the gospel in the dry and darkened New England territory to do so. Browse the website and contact Dave Ricard for more information. Dave has a great heart, and he has a vital program started here.

2. Here’s an old but excellent article by Weekly Standard columnist Joseph Epstein on “perpetual adolescence.” Though published in 2004, the article makes many salient points. Epstein is a nice writer and a keen cultural exegete. This piece complements nicely the new book by Diana West, The Death of the Grown Up. I would encourage you to read the book, but if you don’t quite have time, at least read this article and consider how you and your church possibly participate in the disastrous phenomenon known as “perpetual adolescence.”

3. Saddening news about the divorce of French president Nicolas Sarkozy. Well, not just sad. Enraging. President Sarkozy is a known womanizer, and it appears that his ways have finally driven away his wife for good. This is such a disgusting cultural trend. How awful to watch as faithful wives are humiliated by the lecherous ways of their husbands. Apparently, Sarkozy went so far as to kick his wife out of the presidential manse. Such intrigues are no stranger to French politics, but that fact does not make this event any less awful. How awful to see what men do to women in a world that celebrates personal and moral autonomy. These are the consequences. In a world like ours, many men stink. That’s it. There’s not much more to say. They fashion themselves into wretches, and the world crumbles alongside them. It is my hope that the men who are reading these words will commit themselves to ensuring that such disaster never darkens their doorstep. I pray this for myself, and as we go into the weekend, I pray it for you, brothers.

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A Truly Strange, Frightening and Yet Fascinating Picture

Wow.

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In Evangelism, You Are the Need, and You Are the Answer

Many of us struggle with evangelism. I’ve talked about that on here before. It’s not a new topic, either on this blog or in the life of the Christian. But that hasn’t stopped me from thinking about it in recent days.

A recent chapel message by Southern’s Dean, Dr. Russ Moore, hit me hard on this subject. Dr. Moore is a punchy preacher, and he landed a few. His message helpfully addressed a number of subjects but none more so than the topic of fear in evangelism. To put it straightforwardly, Dr. Moore encouraged his audience to witness with fear, yes, but not fear of man–fear of God for the condition of the lost person. The fact that a person is going to hell should fill us with fear for them. In addition, we have fear in our hearts as we witness for we are filled with reverence and awe as we stand before men and proclaim the news that God will judge those who are not in Christ and save those who are in Him. Evangelism is a holy and awesome task. We don’t enter into it lightly. We do not tremble for fear of our own personal condemnation, but we tremble as those who have been sent to tell a foreign nation that an army approaches to utterly destroy them. This nation blithely goes about its business, while we have caught a glimpse–just a glimpse–of the furious wrath that is to come. Possessing this knowledge, we speed to these people, and tell them of the reality of eternal destruction in hell and the promise of salvation in Christ.

But most of us don’t sense this urgency when we witness. We sense a great fear. Relying too much on feeling, we seek to divine exactly the right moment to say exactly the right words. Should that moment pass, we clam up, certain that our only opportunity for witness is past. We pray earnestly for other such moments to come, but they seem very few and fleeting. We sense the need, and we have the answer, but we cannot find the right time. Well, I am convinced that I too often fail to realize a very simple truth: I am the need, and I am the answer. In other words, I have what the lost around me need, and therefore the gospel I preach is the answer, and so I must err not on the side of timidity but on the side of courage and share the gospel with the lost. I do not cast away any social sensitivity or sense of reliance on God for strength and blessing in witnessing; indeed, I don’t simply bullhorn anyone around me who I sense might not be a Christian. But I personally want to practice what I just wrote: I want to err on the side of courage, not on the side of timidity. Many of us err the wrong way, I think, though we chalk our behavior up to being “sensitive to others” or even to the Spirit in the moment. There are times to fall silent, yes, times to not witness, but most of us do not struggle with witnessing too much. Most of us struggle with the not witnessing enough.

We must pray, then, for God to bring His truth home to our hearts. As Christ’s heralds, we are the need. We are the answer.

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