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? 

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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?

How to Handle Stage Fright

I speak in public; I am a preacher. Most weekends I speak 4 times to a total audience of a couple thousand people.  Public speaking is the normal person’s greatest fear — so say the statistics. I have stage fright, yet I’ve been doing this for over 30 years. It’s been said that Johnny Carson had stage fright before every show. He kept paper clips on his desk so he could fiddle with them during the program.

For my first two years as a pastor, I was sick to my stomach before I preached (not barfing, but the other end… sorry… ). So while everyone was preparing to start our church services, I was in the bathroom… Ugh.

I have not fully conquered stage fright; but I’m able to manage my fears and get the job done. Here are some hard-won tips:

  1. PREPARE, PREPARE, PREPARE. You can reduce a whole lot of fear through thorough preparation. Know your topic, know your main points. I am a manuscript preacher and like to write out my whole sermon. That doesn’t work for everybody — you have to find what works for you. There is no excuse, however, for a preacher, or any public speaker, who wings it. Lazy prep is our unpardonable sin. Prepare well, especially…
  2. FOCUS ON YOUR OPENING. If you don’t want to write out your whole talk, at least try writing the opening. The hardest part is getting started. Once you’re going, you’ll do great. Spend extra time figuring out your exact opening words and sentences. This may include a thank you to whoever introduced/invited you. It may include a Scripture verse (easy, because it gives you permission to read, thus getting your voice properly modulated). Whatever gets the ball rolling, prepare it well.
  3. USE HUMOR. If it suits your topic, use humor. Make sure your funny story contributes to your overall theme — a random joke will come across as just that. But if you have a funny illustration, story, or opening that is RELEVANT to the group, use it.
  4. ARRIVE EARLY TO NAIL DOWN LOGISTICS. Come long before the crowd arrives. Stand behind the podium. Look across the empty chairs. Figure out how to arrange your notes. Do your sound check. Find the clock. Know your stop time (don’t look at your watch unless you want the whole audience to follow suit). Find out how you will be introduced. Find out where you will stand/sit before you speak. That last thing you want is to have to pick your way around instruments, or to discover you have no podium for your notes, right when you’re beginning to speak. No surprises. Do not come late; do not make yourself feel rushed. Yikes! Getting comfortable with your surroundings well before speech-time relieves a lot of anxiety, thus freeing up mental and emotional harddrive space for your talk.
  5. DON’T TALK ABOUT YOUR STAGE FRIGHT. Unless you’re giving a talk about having stage fright, do not mention it to your audience. It’s manipulative. All they can do is feel sorry for you (or disgusted). You are the speaker… you are there to bless your audience, not to unburden yourself. “S..s..sorry, b-but I’m nervous…” only undercuts your speaking credibility.
  6. DRESS COMFORTABLY. I wear a button shirt and nice jeans most of the time. Anything else feels like a costume to me. The real me wears jeans. However, it’s not your call. Honor your host by honoring the dress code for the event. Find out, and then dress as comfortably as you can within those parameters. Wear comfortable shoes. I read an old preacher who said that your attire should not be an issue… Your audience should focus on the content of your talk, not on something you wore or didn’t wear.
  7. PRAY. Before I walk to my pulpit, I pray two prayers: “Casting all your cares upon him, for he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7), and “Lord, fill me with your Spirit, because I can’t deliver what these people need without your help and power.”

You can’t erase your fears, but you can rise above them and bless people with your words.

What other tips can you add to help people overcome stage fright? What has worked for you?

Three Cheers for Vocabulary!

The surgeon says, “I have to pull out that little hangy thingy in your gut-parts that doesn’t do anything.”

The mechanic says, “I’ll have to brush off those shiny screwy ceramic thingies with the little metal tip.”

The contractor says, “I’ll just yank off those flat bumpy whatch-a-ma-call-its from the top of your house and see where it’s leaking.”

You’d be looking for a new surgeon, a new mechanic, and a new contractor. In each of these fields, we want experts. We want dedicated workers who have studied their craft and mastered it. We want a surgeon who knows the difference between an appendix and a spleen, a mechanic who knows the difference between a spark plug and a coil, and a contractor who knows the difference between a roof shingle and roof vent.

And I want a pastor who knows the difference between justification and sanctification, propitiation and redemption, the Hypostatic Union and the Mystical Union, Omniscience and Omnipotence. I want a pastor who has studied the craft and mastered it (not that you can ever master either God or Scripture, but you can be proficient in it at least). I know that some will immediately read me as saying all I care about is theological vocabulary… No. There is immeasurably more to being a pastor or church leader.

But clarity on theology is an indispensable foundation for everything else. Don’t tell me how to live unless you know deeply from Scripture what divine resources God has offered me, how they work, and how Jesus used them in his life… the soul-stirring vocabulary of the Christian faith.

In the realm of the spirit, I want to train you to become your own mechanic.

In olden days, everyone had the same Bible. We’d all read: Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, (Romans 5:1, NKJV). Immediately the preacher was forced into explaining justification… and we’d all learn it. Over the years, we’d develop a fairly sophisticated picture of justification as distinct from, yet related to, sanctification. We’d understand why Martin Luther attempted to correct his church’s theology on the doctrine, and why it mattered so enormously.

Today, however, we read in a dozen translations, some bland variation on: “having been made right by faith” and nobody needs to explain it. In fact, by obliterating the theological vocabulary, the reader isn’t even alerted to the existence of an entire theological system summed up in one word. When a mechanic says “carburetor” he calls to mind a whole piece of machinery and its interplay with the other machinery. One word conjures a vast, systematic picture.

So it is in Scripture: justified, justification, justify, just, righteous… there is an ocean of wonder to explore in this one great word.

Take the word “gospel.” It has morphed into a thousand things, mostly shallow, and mostly emotional. Yes, the gospel is good news, but it is the title for a precise theological bit of good news: that Christ died for our sins, etc (1 Cor 15:3) and that if we mess with it, then we’re to be damned (Gal 1:8,9). God help us all if “gospel” means so much that it stops meaning anything.

By losing our vocabulary, we’ve lost the riches and the wonder. We’ve lost the clarity. We’ve lost the powerful and beautiful inter-linkages that tie all of Scripture together.

We’ve also lost the subtle distinctions that protect us from heresy. After all, the early church split over a single letter: whether Jesus, in his deity, is homo-ousios (the same substance) or homoi-ousios (similar substance) with the Father. Picky? Yes! Essentially picky. Life-changingly picky. Picky the way you hope and pray your surgeon is picky. Vocabulary matters enormously.

The authors of Scripture never shied away from long sentences and big words. They developed a sophisticated vocabulary and weren’t afraid to use it.

This is not to suggest that our sermons and Bible classes become dry, academic, theological lectures. Not at all — and if you’ve heard me preach, you probably wouldn’t describe my sermons that way [I hope]. The people of God crave the deep things of God — let’s take them there, assuming we’ve taken ourselves there first. Let’s patiently build the concepts in their minds. Let’s lay out a rich feast for hungry souls. Let’s integrate deep truth into real life. Let’s go beyond the surface.

Pick up any collection of sermons from a hundred years ago and notice the dramatic contrast: ours today are painfully dumbed down. Sorry.

Paul validated his ministry saying, “For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27, NKJV). Do we declare the whole counsel of God? Or do we settle for funny stories, thin sentimentality, and relentless exhortations to duty.

Three cheers for the meat of God’s Word and the vocabulary that expresses it!

And three cheers for any preacher brave enough to teach it.

Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the Word and doctrine. (1 Timothy 5:17, NKJV).

 

Preaching at Windy City Comm Church

wcccauditI had a great time in Chicago recently. I got to speak at Windy City Community Church… a church I planted in 1987 and pastored for 16 years. It was so cool to renew old friendships. Thank you to Steve and Denise Story and everybody at WCCC for making me so welcome.  Great worship time… and a chile cookoff and volleyball tournament.  As the guys said during the skit @ church… “Sounds like a gas…”

windy-city-028Afterwards, I got to chat with people and sign books.  Very fun.  If you’re in Chicago, check out this church on the NW side. A great group of people doing phenomenal things for God.

Then, on Sunday afternoon, I joined a small group that’s been working through How to Keep Your Inner Mess from Trashing Your Outer World. A fun and funny group with lots of action and discussion. Hey, host a small group based on the book, invite me, and I just might show up!

Update: I will hopefully hear this week about a second book… more of an apologetics slant… and would appreciate your prayers.  Thanks.

wcccsigning1