Today, ministers awoke throughout the world thinking about Easter Sunday. For those of us who preach each week, the opportunity to proclaim the gospel on Easter is one of the great joys in life. In some churches, they will hold services for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Some churches will have enormous events on Saturday or on Sunday afternoon. Worship leaders, music ministers, deacons, church staff, and leaders of every level will prepare for the highest attended day of the year. But, for the preacher, much of the week’s emphasis will be on the sermon.
A few in our ranks knew months ago what passage they would use and have already planned the sermon. Others have identified the passage and will prepare the message this week. We will all pray, read, study, and pray some more as the week speeds by. The following are a few of my own thoughts about preparing for the Easter sermon.
1. Be persuasive. The sermon is an opportunity to be winsome. The biblical example we have from Paul is to persuade (Acts 18:13; 2 Corinthians 5:11) rather than offend. Let the gospel be the stumbling block where necessary, not our manner.
2. Set Easter as your standard and not your exception. Holidays like Easter and Christmas can be treated as the times to ratchet out your best preaching. This year, I want to make them the standard by which I will teach all year.
3. Pray well. I’ve read it in various places (but have never found the original citation) that Martin Luther said (or wrote), “He who has prayed well has studied well.” We would agree that the statement is true. Study for a sermon without prayer is a fruitless endeavor.
4. Don’t be a jerk. We’ve heard the stories that are painfully true of the preacher who, at the conclusion of the Easter message, wished the crowd a Merry Christmas because “that’s when we’ll probably see some of you again.” If you are tempted by such embitterment, see statement #3 and pray some more.
5. Hold Jesus higher than your church. We love our churches. We should. As leaders, we are called to such a love. In our Easter message, it is fine and appropriate to describe the beauty of being a part of the church, benefiting from, and contributing to her ministries. But there is a limit. On Easter, celebrate Him more than anything else. Test your Easter message to ensure that you do not talk more about programs than Jesus.
6. Talk about sin. A temptation will plague you to avoid anything that feels negative. After all, you want new people to come back. The devastating consequence of sin, however, is a subject that people need to hear. To share the gospel, we must share the necessity of it.
7. Offer hope. I don’t know of anyone who would say, “I have enough hope.” On Easter, offer people the substance of what they intrinsically desire. As you preach, point toward the One who makes all things new.
8. Tell them how to respond. On Easter, you and I will declare that spiritual life is found in Jesus. Many who will be in attendance do not know how to respond to the gospel. As you preach, tell them how to respond to Jesus. Your church has its normal manner by which people can respond to the gospel. On Easter, declare the goodness of Christ and plead with people to place their faith in Him.
Leaders speak. It is a natural part of the leadership process to communicate what the group is to do and where the group is to go. Though leadership can happen by influence through the actions of the leader, nevertheless, verbal communication is always necessary. In one form or another, leaders must also be teachers. They are not necessarily teachers in the classic form of classroom instruction, but it may occasionally take that form.
Leadership requires that you speak in a way that is understandable. It also requires having the discernment to know whether or not you have been understood. It is a lesson driven home to me when I traveled in 2013 to teach for a course at the Kiev Theological Seminary. While teaching in their church planting school, all of the lectures were translated into Russian for the students. Some of them preferred Ukrainian, but all of them spoke Russian. As in any teaching, I lectured, asked questions, interacted with the students, and engaged them in various learning activities. It was during those days of teaching that these four principles were driven home to me about speaking and understanding.
Take an international setting combined with educational course and throw in a translator, and you will have a recipe for a great deal of miscommunication. During the course, I learned when the students were nodding to be polite and when they were smiling in disagreement.
As a church leader, it is a distinction you must learn as well in your own setting. How many times have you given a rousing vision-casting sermon that was met with “Amen” and “Good sermon, preacher” statements? But then no one followed through on the vision. They all nodded in agreement. They all affirmed the worthwhile nature of the goals you laid out. They all heard you… but that does not mean they understood you.
Leading the church into its mission, vision, core values, or whatever else you may call it is more than just blurting out words to inspire. It requires that you know the people whom you lead well enough to know if they understood a word that you said. And, having understood it, knowing if they will go in that direction. There are no easy answers to this issue. It is the place where we learn just how fictional “positional leadership” really is in most of our churches. Ultimately, the speaking you do must be backed up by the influence you have. Then, and only then, can there be true understanding.
Discipleship is a word that continues to be applied in a multitude of ways. To some, it is the process of growth for a believer. To others, it is how we bring someone to faith. The word is used to describe both blocks of time in church programming and the whole foundation of a church’s ministry. It is intensely personal and broadly congregational. However the word is used, there is a base understanding that it carries. Discipleship is the word that we associate with a person learning from, following, and obeying Jesus as Lord.
Gaining understanding, maturity, and any level of accomplishment for all disciplines require time. Our faith is no different. No matter how you think about it, discipleship takes time. But time is a precious commodity. In fact, oftentimes, it is my most valued commodity. We are rushed to accomplish more in less time and sacrifice any time for rest. Additionally, through digital means, we have instantaneous access to more information than we could ever consume. For the life of the church, in any given city, there are more hours of church ministry and programming than is possible to be involved in during any given week. All of this often adds up to a feeling of hurrying through discipleship.
My encouragement is to realize that growth takes time. Lots of time. Why? Because you are dealing with relationships. As I wrote in Transformational Discipleship, it is more than merely consuming information and modifying your behavior. It is relating day-by-day to Jesus and His church. To think about this more clearly, I put down these five principles to carry with us as we think about discipleship.
1. Slow learning. The new show Intelligence features a soldier who has a chip implanted in his brain so that he can access the information grid of Internet, surveillance cameras, cell phones, and all the rest. He can access all information on the planet instantaneously. But that is not all there is to learning. Learning from Jesus takes time because it requires us to process what we learn and apply it to our lives.
2. Crockpot community. In a recent gathering of church planters in Nashville, one of the guys used this phrase to describe how they establish relationships. It is a brilliant phrase and accurate. Discipleship is highly relational and we need to allow time for those relationships to form, develop, and bear fruit. We would be wise to stop randomly throwing people together into groups and, instead, allow for deep friendships to form over time.
3. Messy relationships. Ministry, in all forms, is messy because people are involved. Being in a discipling relationship requires you to enter into the mess of another person’s life. It also requires you to allow others into the mess of your life. The truth inherent in that mode of living takes a great amount of time to form, develop, and sustain.
4. Authenticity. It is a principle that is under the surface in the last two ideas but needs to be stated plainly. Sadly, though, the term authenticity has almost fallen to the place of a buzzword in our churches. You can be honest in the flash of a second, but to be authentically relating to other people takes time. The one being discipled and the one doing the discipling must prove to be trusting and trustworthy over the long haul. It must move beyond quips of self-deprecating humor to the honest conversations about the state of our souls.
5. Delayed gratification. The great key for many of us in discipleship is the willingness to delay instant gratification while we and others are in the growth process. If maturing were easy, everyone would do it. But it is not and so many fall away from the journey. As a leader or a follower, we need to show patience as the Lord shows it continuously. As we delay our infantile need to gain complete satisfaction by our own efforts and the efforts of others, then we will better enjoy what God is currently doing among us.
Johannes Gutenberg invented the moveable-type printing press in the 1400s. With it, he helped revolutionize the Western culture world. The first book of significance he printed was the 42–line Gutenberg Bible, which took him years to finish and ultimately bankrupted him. He recorded why he endeavored on the work (source). It is a great reminder to all people of faith as to why we should never give up on the work of God’s mission.
God suffers in the multitude of souls whom His word can not reach. Religious truth is imprisoned in a small number of manuscript books which confine instead of spread the public treasure.
Let us break the seal which seals up holy things and give wings to Truth in order that she may win every soul that comes into the world by her word no longer written at great expense by hands easily palsied, but multiplied like the wind by an untiring machine.
Yes, it is a press, certainly, but a press from which shall flow in inexhaustible streams the most abundant and most marvelous liquor that has ever flowed to relieve the thirst of men.
Through it, God will spread His word; a spring of pure truth shall flow from it; like a new star it shall scatter the darkness of ignorance, and cause a light hithertofore unknown to shine among men.
Philip Nation is the adult ministry publishing director for LifeWay Christian Resources. He earned a master of divinity from Beeson Divinity School and a doctor of ministry from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also serves as teaching pastor for the The Fellowship, a multisite church in Nashville, Tennessee.
His works include Compelled: Living the Mission of God and Transformational Discipleship: How People Really Grow. He is also the general editor of The Mission of God Study Bible. Along the way, he has written the small-group studies Compelled by Love: The Journey to Missional Living and Live in the Word, plus contributed to The Great Commission Resurgence: Fulfilling God’s Mandate in Our Lifetime.