Five Must-Ask Questions for Christian Communicators

When Jesus said, “The truth shall set you free,” he meant it. Writers, preachers, and speakers should wise up: Every time you deliver God’s truth, you have the potential to unlock emotional chains in your hearer’s heart. A skilled Christian Communicator weds good theology with healthy psychology. That’s not an argument for shallow preaching, or an excuse to regurgitate pop psychology. It’s a recognition that redemption is an ongoing process of setting people free through Christ and his truth — especially from chains they didn’t realize they had.

  • If you preach to the head only, you become a dry, academic lecturer and create an audience of theological snobs and condescending doctrinal critics.
  • If you preach to the heart only, you become a manipulative puppet-master and create an audience of spiritual adrenaline-junkies… salivating for their next worship-high.
  • If you preach truth to the head even as you apply it to the heart, you set people free to become all God called them to be. And sincere seekers will flock to your message.

Here are five questions to keep asking if you want to serve up books and talks that set people free:

  1. What lies about God does my audience believe?
    God is better than and bigger than your audience believes. Let them walk away from your work inspired by God’s ability, God’s sovereignty, God’s providence, and God’s care. Unless your arguments unleash God from the lies your hearers believe — by celebrating his attributes, promises, names, character, works, and abilities — they will walk away unchanged and still trapped in the unhappiness defective theology inevitably brings. Even if you psyched them up with temporary razzle dazzle.
  2. How does my message untwist my distorted view of my identity in Christ?
    Who am I? I am who God says I am, not who my crazy parents or schoolyard bullies convinced me I am. As a fledgling pastor, an aged Gandalf in my life named Lance B. Latham (founder of Awana), told me “Teach them their riches in Christ.” I took that to heart. There is, inside of every Christian, a radiant, Christ-shaped IDENTITY eager to emerge. That self is powerful, rich, and free. But it’s crusted over by the devil’s lies. Good theology peels away those lies, and let the new creation fly free.
  3. What is God’s duty and the believer’s privilege?
    Here is my heart’s passion: to reverse the epidemic of legalism in today’s Christian messaging. Repeat after me: The primary duty lies with God. The primary duty lies with God. The primary duty lies with God. And yet… almost every sermon, and nearly every Christian best-seller, shouts forth the duty of ME. I’d be the last one to deny Christian duty, but our proportions are dysfunctionally out of whack. If you want to heal people remind them of how God has obligated himself to bless, to provide, to protect, to go to war for, and to shower his love upon them in each and every situation. This is how theology heals psychology.
  4. What super-power does my message promise that my audience needs to seize?
    Remember the little phrase, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength”? Sing it. Write it. Tell it. Explain it. Develop a reputation as a speaker/preacher/writer who ENABLES your audience. Inspire them to lay hold of their divine privileges and to sally forth to slay their dragons.
  5. Where’s the grace?
    You’re not ready to communicate a truth until you see the grace in it. Is grace offered? Resisted? Explained? Illustrated? Snubbed? Defied? Distorted? Denied? Embraced? Applied? Unless you show how God’s never-failing supply, presence, work, gifts, and love apply in each specific situation, you’ll morph into nothing but Oprah with a little Jesus sprinkled on top. 

Theology heals psychology, if we will let it. In our sex-saturated, parentally-starved, narcissistic, dysfunctional, fearful culture, those who bear the mantel of a Christian Communicator need to focus ninety percent of our “practical applications” on unravelling the web of lies and installing a matrix of truth in our audience’s heart and mind, so they possess the INNER resources to live as God intended. Let us faithfully communicate Christ and him crucified — and all the beautiful truths that radiate from him — as the only Savior who sets people free.

I’d love to interact with you on this. How has theology healed psychology for you? How has theology been used to damage psychology? In the Christian messaging you’ve been exposed to, what share of the “duty” lies with you? with God? 

Ten Unusual Tips for Public Speakers

Here are a few unusual tips for public speakers, no matter your setting. These are not your standard tips… it’s stuff I don’t think I’ve ever read, but have learned the hard way, in three decades of public speaking. Here we go:

1. Gesture backwards. Do a quick experiment: count out loud to five, and gesture with your right hand to indicate each number as you say it. Which way did your hand move? We read left to right. Most of us gesture that direction. A public speaker should gesture backwards, so your audience sees it from left to right. So, if you’re outlining America’s wars, you would go from right to left: Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War I, World War II, etc. Ditto for physical movement across the stage. Place the Jews in Egypt on the stage right (your right), and then step to the left to talk about the Red Sea, and more to the left to talk about the wanderings in the wilderness, and then even more to the left to talk about the Promised Land. Your backwards is your audience’s forwards. Get it?

2. Speak in the singular, not the plural. Speaking in the singular helps close the emotional distance between you and your audience. When you speak in the plural, you subtly add to that distance. For example, when you say, “Please turn off your cell phones,” your listener feels (without thinking) “I didn’t bring cell phones; I just brought a cell phone.” I do not say, “Open your Bibles to John 3:16.” I say, “Open your Bible” because each person only has one. Sometimes I use the plural on purpose: “Some here today have never made the choice of faith…” But that’s intentional. Otherwise, you should always try to close the distance between you and your audience by speaking in the singular. That’s how you create intimacy.

3. Love consonants. Articulate. The great orators pronounce every consonant, especially final consonants. They don’t get lazy and mumble their words’ last syllables. Babies make unintelligible vowel sounds with weak consonants at the begining… goo goo gaa gaa.  Grown ups close their vowel sounds with crisp consonants at the end. The oldest listener with the most obsolete hearing aid should have no problem deciphering your words. For years I have told preaching students to slow down. Now I tell them to articulate; it automatically makes them slow down. It also forces them to pause more frequently, a very good habit of public speakers.

4. Second person, please. One can only do damage to one’s speaking abilities when one insists on the third person mode of address. Yuchh. I want to get down and dirty and get in your face. Again, if you do it right, you’ll create intimacy; your talk will feel like a conversation.

5. Microphone management. If you have to hold it, hold it super-close. Don’t tap it. Don’t say, “Am I on?” Don’t pop your P’s straight into it; speak across the top, sending your breath into the distance, not into the mic. If you get feedback, and there’s a sound board operator, pull it away, but then bring it right back so the operator can adjust. If there’s no operator, good luck. When you get loud, pull back from the mic. You don’t need volume, you just need intensity, and that will translate without the mic up close. Watch how Frank Sinatra moves the mic in and out. Yeah, like that.

6. Notes on one side. Don’t use both sides of the paper for your notes. Just use one side. That way, your audience won’t mark time every time you flip over a sheet. Slide them, don’t flip them.

7. Don’t look at your watch. Take it off and set it on your podium. If you keep checking your wrist, your audience will join you. Or set your iPhone timer on your podium. Make sure your ringer is off. I learned the hard way — during a radio interview — that the timer’s alarm will sound even with the toggle switch for sound turned off. Ugh. P.S., end on time.

8. Don’t shade your eyes. Bright lights and a dim audience put you at a disadvantage; don’t admit it. Don’t even hint at it.  Only a rookie would say, “Wow, it’s dark in here and these lights are blinding; I can’t see anybody!” You’ve just signed a permission slip for the rowdies to goof off. Again, you’ve created emotional distance — a big mistake. Instead, look into the darkness and make eye contact with nothingness. Do this in random places, all across the space where you think your audience is. Don’t shade your eyes; it’s unprofessional. If you’re early enough, you can work with the light-board operator to find out what your settings will be, and negotiate accordingly.

9. Deliver valuable content. Substance makes up for style [almost] every time. Have something to say — something valuable, and rich, and deep. Especially if you’re a preacher. Sermons should offer meat, not just milk. Give deep truths your audience really needs. We do not enter the pulpit to entertain, nor to make a name for ourselves. We stand and deliver the oracles of God, straight from the Written Word of God, to spread a feast before the people of God. An audience will forgive unpolished speaking if they feel they’ve obtained valuable content, as long as it’s well-organized. Unless you’re Jerry Seinfeld, don’t do a talk about nothing.

10. It’s not about you. Nobody cares how excited you are to be there. They may be excited to hear you, but that’s not the point. All that up-front gushing about how cool it is you got to speak to this group is back-asswards. Instead of telling them how you feel about yourself, tell them how the world feels about them (I’m assuming you’re a guest speaker at a one-time event, not a regular preacher to the same people, in which case they’ll get sick of this really fast, so skip it). For example, “I want you to know that everywhere I go, I hear about your church [say name] and the great things [specify] you are doing. In the pastor groups I’m part of, I want you to know how highly respected your pastor is. When Pastor Melchizedek speaks, other pastors take notes. I’m honored to be here.” Something like that. Don’t be a false flatterer and don’t lie. And never undercut your own credentials (=credibility) by saying how unworthy you are to be there. Just honor your audience and get beyond yourself so you can bless your listeners.

What are some tips you have learned? Or some pet peeves you’ve seen?

A Word to Preachers

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. (2 Corinthians 4:7, NKJV).

It will be my privilege to teach a preaching class next semester, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the deeper levels of preaching.  To me, it is the highest, most glorious calling a person can have.  I magnify the office–meaning, I make a big deal about the task and position of preaching.

Aside from personal qualifications of a genuine life with God and a thick hide, it seems to me that you can’t preach well, and certainly not for the long haul, without two indispensable qualities.  Okay, there are dozens of indispensable qualities, but here are the two I’m thinking about today:

1.  A theological system.  Preaching isn’t just about communicating, it’s about communicating “something.” Back in my youth pastor days, a guest speaker came to my church.  I’m a pretty positive guy (though years in ministry can peck that out of you), so afterwards, I commented that the speaker might have been light on content, but he was very eloquent.  My friend, Terry, shot back, “Yeah.  So he said nothing… well.”  He said nothing well.  

Have a theology, and let that shine through your preaching.

Indulge me while I quote one of my favorite authors, the incomparable Dorothy Sayers (friend of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Inklings)…

“It is a lie to say that doctrine does not matter; it matters enormously. It is fatal to let poeple suppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling; it is vitally necessary to insist that it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe.”

“It is hopeless to offer Christianity as a vaguely idealist aspiration of a simple and consoling kind; it is, on the contrary, a hard, tough, exacting, and complex doctrine, steeped in a drastic and uncompromising realism.”

“If the average person is to be interested in Christ at all, it is the doctrine that will provide the interest. The trouble is that, in nine cases out of ten, he or she has never been offered the doctrine. What has been offered is a set of technical theological terms that nobody has taken the trouble to translate into language relevant to ordinary life.”

Can I get an Amen?

The problem, of course, is choosing which theological system to stick with.  I grew up Dispensational and Fundamentalist.  Today I would call myself Evangelical, though that word is going the way of Fundamentalist–I don’t know what word will replace it, not yet at least.  You can be Reformed, Arminian, Calvinist, Pentecostal, Charismatic… about a half dozen Protestant, Evangelical categories.

I say, pick one.  God works through all of them (when they uphold the authority of Scripture).  There are godly followers of Jesus in all of them. There are great biblical scholars in all of them. Pick a system and master it. Learn it.  Be able to defend it. Know its authors, its proponents.  Know its alternatives and where you differ from other systems. Own it.  Be it.  Feel it.  Live it.  

You’re the preacher, master your content.

And when you preach, let it shape your preaching.  Preaching is like chipping a sculpture out of a giant block of marble, and you only get one hammer blow per week… the rest of the week, you polish and clean and soothe where you chipped.  It takes years.  Unless you work from a master blueprint in your mind, you will undo tomorrow what you have done today.  Your theological system keeps you from driving your hearers crazy with inconsistencies, whether subtle or grand.

Above all, when you preach, preach your “system” with passion, but stay charitable toward those in other systems.  The Lord knows we Christians have enough intra-mural fighting going on… don’t add to it. God uses every system that upholds the supreme authority of Scripture for faith and practice.  Pick a theological system, and tweak it if you must–it keeps you from reinventing the wheel.  

The second indispensable quality is like the first:

2. A viewpoint on sanctification.  Sanctification answers the question of HOW can I be a WWJD person? How can I do what Jesus would do?  By what power?  What is the process by which God conforms me to the image of Christ?  How does a person become more and more Christlike?

If you can’t answer those questions, don’t preach. 

Your flock gathers discouraged and weary from the weekly grind.  They long to know the power of Jesus in their lives.  Not another set of techniques to fix their budget or to ease hunger in Africa–though these are crucial.  First and foremost they wonder how to live like Jesus.  And you have to tell them.  You have to disciple them.  Or else their campaigns to fix the world’s problems will come across as just another failed Crusade. 

Because preaching should contribute to sanctification. It should both motivate and contribute to your hearers’ spiritual growth.  Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth.” (John 17:17, NKJV).

Paul said, “So now, brethren, I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” (Acts 20:32, NKJV).

We create endless frustration in the church of Jesus when we spout mutually contradictory fragments of an ill-formed view on sanctification.  So one week, your listeners hear you say that you need to walk in the Spirit, or be filled with the Spirit, or else they can’t please God.  And two weeks later, you’re telling them to tough it out and subdue their ungodly passions… and you never put that together with walking in the Spirit, and show how the two fit together.  You drive your listeners crazy… and not only that,  you make them give up on the WWJD ideal.  They’re so frustrated they think it’s impossible.

J.I. Packer’s book, Keep in Step With the Spirit, outlines and critiques four or five views on Sanctification.  I would describe mine as a modified-Keswick view.  Then there is the Augustinian view (which Packer supports), and the Charismatic view.  There are several views on the biblical path to holiness.  Once again, I say pick one.  Know it.  Master it.  Read its literature. Make a biblical case for it. Play nice with other views…

And let that view of sanctification shape every sermon you preach.  This is the only way to build a coherent view of life with Jesus in the minds of your hearers.

It is an act of love and kindness not to confuse your flock.  Don’t lead them south one week and north the next.  They’ll get seasick.  Mark out a course… theologically and practologically, and steer a steady course.  

For many, many years.

And don’t hesitate to change your mind, and say so, when God’s Word brings you around to my way of thinking!!!

Before I Preach… I Panic…

preacher repentAnybody who wants to understand a preacher’s weekend should read this article by veteran preacher, Walter Wangerin Jr. (click here)

It’ll help explain why any preacher who’s really INVESTED in his or her message isn’t very “chatty” before the sermon. And why that’s the worst possible time to bring up problems in the church or discuss the volume of the music or ask for counseling. Great article.

I’m glad I’m not the only one.

I’m sure this pre-sermon panic doesn’t just afflict preachers. How about a lawyer before closing arguments? or teacher before a major presentation? or an architect or engineer who has to submit a bid? or a student before a presentation? Our trials are “common to mankind” (1 Cor 10:13).

lockerrm2.jpgBefore I preach, I feel like a fighter in the locker room. Focused. Jittery. Trying to contain myself. Calm myself. I make an effort to be gracious and available (as time permits… I’m usually running to get to the next service)… but please know that deep inside, I’m not all there.

But you already suspected that.

Just a confession.