A couple of recent sermons

A sermon on Luke 5:1-11.

The call to “fish for people” that Jesus gave to Simon Peter, James, & John on the Lake of Gennesaret is one that’s hard for many of us to live out today.

But the world and people’s worlds all around us are broken and Jesus wants us to help people experience release from the brokenness.


A sermon on Luke 9:51-62.

You might remember this passage once you read it. It’s the one where Jesus tells a man whose father recently passed away, “Let the dead bury their own dead….”

The World Is Your Parish: 5 Places for Associate Pastors to Preach

The number one complaint I hear from other associate pastors is that they don’t get to preach enough.

And if Tim Keller is right when he says, “the only way you’re going to be a better preacher is if you preach often,” then we associate pastors are doomed to some pretty bad sermons for years to come.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Most associate pastors passively wait for preaching invitations to come their way. But if you truly want to grow as a preacher, you can easily preach more often by actively searching for new opportunities to share God’s Word with others.

Here are five places to begin:

1. Your current church

Start by letting your senior pastor know that you wish you had more opportunities to preach. He might tell you that one day you’ll get that chance at your own church where you can control the pulpit each week. She might begin rotating you in more often due to your eagerness and desire to grow as a preacher, or he might welcome the feedback and keep everything as it has been. No matter the response, this helps pave the way for future conversations when you request to preach elsewhere.

2. Your friend’s church

You likely know other pastors who are preaching weekly, and while this opportunity may seem glorious in your mind, many of them would greatly appreciate a week out of the pulpit to get ahead on sermon preparation, focus on other priorities, or take a vacation. Send a quick email to your friends letting them know that you’d love to relieve them one week and jump into the current series they’re doing or do a stand alone sermon. If they’re agreeable, make sure you clear it with your senior pastor first.

3. Your childhood church

While many prophets aren’t welcome in their hometown, my childhood church loves having me as a guest preacher. Congregations enjoy seeing someone in the pulpit that they had a role in shaping for ministry. It gives them a sense of pride and fruitfulness as they witness what God has done throughout the years in their church and through their church. The easiest way to make this happen is by intentionally cultivating a relationship with each new pastor of your childhood church and letting them know that you’re available.

4. Your local prison

It’s very likely that your local prison has weekly worship services. They might even be at times other than Sunday morning when you’d easily be available. Reach out to the chaplain or other people connected with ministries in your local prison and offer yourself as a resource.

Last time I preached at the local prison a man came up to me after my sermon and asked if he could have my sermon notes. He was training to be a preacher and wanted to see how other people prepared!

5. Your local nursing home

While I’ve yet to preach in a nursing home, one of my friends recently gave me this suggestion. He reminded me that we preachers, like John Wesley, must not simply wait for people and preaching opportunities to come to us. Instead, we must go to them and meet people in the places right where they are—particularly the most vulnerable.

What other ways or places have you found to develop your gift of preaching?

Preaching Without Notes: A New Habit to Transform Your Sermons

Seedbed.com recently started a new Preaching Collective. I’ll be a regular contributor there and wanted to share my first post with you!

Smyrna Camp Meeting

“If you can learn to do this one thing, I guarantee you’ll get more responses from your sermons.”

When one of my mentors said this to me over coffee about a year ago, I listened intently. It sounded like he was about to tell me a closely guarded secret that people, including my seminary professors, had been keeping from me.

“Learn to preach without notes. It won’t necessarily lead to you preaching better content, but it will lead to a deeper connection.”

I thought about his words, admitted my fears, and committed to making it happen. After a year of preaching without notes, I’ve discovered he was right.

My sermons now connect with my congregation in a way they never did when I had my rehearsed manuscript. I receive more positive feedback than ever before. People often tell me what they’ve been thinking about the sermon weeks after I’ve preached it. And stories about people being “doers of the Word” are becoming more and more frequent.

My mentor didn’t give me a handy ten steps to learn how to preach without notes, but over the last year I’ve learned from many others who’ve made the journey before me. Here are the five most helpful things I’ve put into practice: 

1. Let connection take priority over precision

Most preachers are trained in seminary settings that prize precise language, perfect grammar, and phrases that read beautifully. But if you’re going to preach without notes, you have to be willing to sacrifice some precision of language for the sake of connection—unless you can memorize long form content verbatim on a weekly basis.

This doesn’t mean that you don’t do careful exegesis or commit certain phrases and transitions to memory. It does mean that you let eye contact and being fully present with the congregation take precedence over those sentences that took you hours to painstakingly craft in your study.

As Will Willimon recently wrote, “Even when we know our manuscript well, we tend to look at the manuscript rather than look at our listeners. We miss clues that our listeners are sending us when they don’t understand, or when they are losing interest.

2. Understand your sermon

Don’t try to memorize your sermon. It will be extremely difficult and probably leave you frustrated. Instead, simply understand your sermon. It’ll make preaching it without notes much easier.

Carey Nieuwhof puts it this way: “When you understand the structure of your talk, you understand your talk.” And when you understand your talk, you can stand in front of people without worrying that you’ll forget everything.

To help understand and remember the structure of my sermons, I often use structures popularized by others such as Andy Stanley’s Me, We, God, You, We or Paul Scott Wilson’s Four Pages of the Sermon. Other times, I create a structure unique to the text I’m preaching.

In all cases, I make an outline of the talk’s structure with as much detail as I feel I need for every point. When I started, I converted manuscripts to detailed outlines, and then converted those to simple outlines. Now, I start with a detailed outline to save time.

Before I step in front of the congregation, I make sure I can write down the structure of my sermon on a sheet of paper with no hesitancy. Then, even if I forget specific points or phrases, I know I can still convey the big picture.

3. Practice out loud on location

Most performers wouldn’t step on stage without having rehearsed what they’re going to say and do. Most preachers will.

If you want your sermons to stand out, the most effective thing you can do after understanding your sermon in your head is to hear it in your ears. Yes, I know it’s awkward. But it’s less awkward to discover that your sermon is too dense, has too many stories, or is it just plain bad while you’re alone than when you’re surrounded by a crowd of people.

Schedule practice time into your sermon preparation and try to rehearse in the room where you’ll be preaching. This will help you get a feel for the room, platform, lighting, and other elements.

Like Tim Ferriss does when he’s rehearsing public speaking, I’ll write down one-liners and phrases that I like so that I can remember them for later. And I continue going through my message until I nail it once.

You can read the last two points here.

Seven tips for short-term mission trips

I’ve seen short-term mission trips do harm to the participants and to the people being served.

I’ve also seen short-term mission trips work in amazing ways to encourage, equip, and empower current disciples of Jesus and help create new ones.

The Kingdom of God needs more of the latter.

Methodists in Boca

So after going on more than fifteen short-term mission trips and hosting short-term missionaries in both domestic and foreign settings, here are my seven tips for short-term missionaries:

1. God is a lot bigger than this week long trip.

We must remember as we go that God has been working where we’re headed long before we arrived. And God will continue to do amazing work there long after we leave as well.

Our American sense of urgency can cause us to think God’s work around the world is entirely dependent upon our short-term mission projects and us. He’s graciously allowed us to be part of how he extends his reign around the world, but he’s using countless others as well. When we’re discouraged, may we be reminded that God has had thousands of years of turning our most feeble attempts at living out his mission into beautiful reflections of his glory. When we’re tempted to overstate our role, may we be reminded that only God can turn a heart of stone into a heart of flesh.
– David A. Livermore, Serving with Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence

2. We are missionaries who are to love God and those we encounter with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strength.

Your presence on this trip isn’t an accident. God wants to work in you and through you this week. God’s plan to grow someone else might be through you. And God’s plan to grow you might be through someone else.

As we seek to love, we must seek to do so in the way of Jesus. The way of Jesus is self-sacrificing love. The way of Jesus is servant leadership. The way of Jesus is humility.

Self-sacrificing love. Servant leadership. Humility.

These three things are crucial to success as a team. Success isn’t getting a project done or coming home with some cool Instagram photos. Success is faithfully serving the people we encounter with love and humility.

3. We are guests in a different culture.

We aren’t tourists who came for an amazing spring break getaway. We are missionaries who are seeking to humble ourselves and serve the Kingdom of God in the way that our hosts recommend.

We’re entering into a different culture. As Americans, we often believe that how we think and live is best. But on this trip we want to be open to learning from cultures and people that we encounter who are different.

I once heard a story about a short-term mission team who discovered that the shared bathroom they were to use during the week smelled nasty and was full of flies. The trip leader discovered that the smell and flies were coming from the trashcan where some people had been putting used toilet paper. Appalled, he emptied the trashcan, took it out of the bathroom, and put it in a common area.

A few hours later, there was soiled toilet paper all over the floor of the bathroom. The leader sat down his team to scold them for their middle-schoolesque hygiene practices. No one admitted to throwing the toilet paper on the ground, but he suspected some of the immature guys were just trying to be funny.

The next day, the trip leader found the trashcan back in the bathroom, full of soiled toilet paper. He was outraged at his group, scolded them again, and hid the trashcan.

When the trip leader found the trashcan back in the bathroom and full of soiled toilet paper again the next day, he finally spoke with the owner of the facility. He hoped that she could talk some sense into his group and explain that housekeepers were having to clean up the toilet paper that some people kept throwing on the floor because they thought it was funny.

The owner laughed and responded to the trip leader, “In our country we don’t flush toilet paper. The sewage systems here clog when we flush it because they weren’t built for it. We throw the paper in the trash, the housekeepers empty it each evening, and then replace the trash can for the next day.”

The trip leader was shocked and embarrassed.

We’ll be learning a lot more about cultural differences as we serve. The key here is to ask lots of questions rather than engage in a lot of assumptions.

4. Be flexible.

Do you love control as much as I do? Probably.

Instead, go with the flow.

We love controlling our schedules, our lives, our safety, our futures, and so much more. But while on this trip, let’s rest from this tendency.

There’s likely a general itinerary. Know that it is very likely to change on a regular basis.

We will deal with broken down busses, late deliveries, different understandings of time, and many other things. Amazingly, it’s often in these moments when we encounter God in unique ways.

5. “Being” and “receiving” is more important than “doing.”

When we’re working, we’re going to work extremely hard with everything we have.

But laying concrete blocks, seeing a freshly painted building, or coming away with tangible results isn’t the most important thing. The most important thing is that we’ve sought to be people of love who are also open to being loved.

The first time I left the country my life changed forever. It wasn’t because we successfully renovated housing for global missionaries. It was because I was open to receiving God’s grace from those we were serving.

6. Watch out for God.

Expect “divine appointments.” God is already at work and we’re joining in His work, so why wouldn’t we expect to encounter Him?

As you eat, work, rest, and meet others, be on the lookout for God at work. This may come through the smile of a child, a special connection you make with someone, a passage of scripture that connects with your day, an answered prayer, or more.

When you experience God in such a way, don’t hide it away in your heart. Share it with others on the team! And if you want some good pillow talk, ask one another where you saw God at work that day.

7. Be hopeful.

As Paul writes in Ephesians 3:20-21, God is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine according to his power that is at work within us! Believe this truth as you are sent out to be proclaimers and demonstrators of the good news of Jesus Christ.

Read more about global and short-term missions here:

My first experience with the global church

Why the American church needs the global church

My time working with the Evangelical Methodist Church in El Salvador

What If Beauty Isn’t What We Expect? Lessons from Worshipping in Guatemala

Books I’ve been reading lately

My goal for 2014 was to read more books than I had in the previous year. I succeeded! And this year my goal is the same–to read more books than I did in 2014.

Below is the list of books I read last year.  In the comments, I’d love to hear your recommendations for this year.

2014 Books

The top five in no particular order:

Real Sex – Lauren Winner

Recently some middle school boys were at my house and they started giggling when they found this book. I don’t know what they thought it contained, but I assured them that it was one of the best Christian books on sex that’s out there. However, they didn’t seem too interested since there were no pictures. Most people aren’t interested in reading Christian reflections on sex and chastity, but if I could give one book on sex to young adult singles, youth pastors, and pastors in my denomination, it would be this one.

I experience the church’s teaching about sex as difficult. I chafe against it. Sometimes it feels outmoded, irrelevant, burdensome. But to rely on my experience here would be to rely on something frankly broken and distorted. Sometimes it is scary or inconvenient to trust the church. But it is more often a relief to know that I don’t have to rely solely on my intuition or experience to make decisions about ethical behavior. The church is here to teach me how to handle sex, money, time, relationships, & myriad other issues.

The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail – Oscar Martinez

You won’t think of immigrants from south of the border the same after reading this book. It’ll challenge you, scare you, and open your eyes to the dangerous journey many make and why they would risk so much to make it.

I’m not hoping readers will feel compassion for the men and women who go through this hellish trial in order to wash your plates, to cut your grass, to make your coffee. I hope, rather, that the book generates respect for these men and women, for those who have done something for their families that many of us could hardly find the strength to do. Respect for this drive that migrants have, a drive which is stronger than the criminal cartels, a drive more powerful than the train engine and a drive more vital than any limb— a leg, for example—of our very body.

Letters to Marc About Jesus: Living a Spiritual Life in a Material World – Henri Nouwen

Last fall I asked Jim Harnish what book he would give to people wanting to follow Jesus in a more serious way and this was his recommendation. I ended up teaching a class with this book as one of the texts and it challenged us all to picture Jesus in a fresh light. Although some people found it a level above the pop theology they were used to, it is concise, clearly written, and helps to answer the question “Who is Jesus?” in a beautiful way.

Jesus is the revelation of God’s unending, unconditional love for us human beings. Everything that Jesus has done, said, and undergone is meant to show us that the love we most long for is given to us by God—not because we’ve deserved it, but because God is a God of love.

Who? Solve Your Number One Problem – Geoff Smart & Randy Street

If you hire people in any context you need to buy this book, read this book, and use it as a reference for years to come. Their process, questions, and advice have already been extremely helpful to me and I’ll be using their techniques for years to come.

Who is your number-one problem. Not what. What refers to the strategies you choose, the products and services you sell, and the processes you use. … Who refers to the people you put in place to make the what decisions. Who is where the magic begins, or where the problems start. … Who mistakes are pricey, prevalent, and preventable.

Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed: Black Holes, Love, and a Journey In and Out of Calvinism – Austin Fischer

You can read my review posted on Seedbed here.

This book provides some great practical processes and questions for any church staff hire. It helped my church hire a great new youth pastor last year.

Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality – Wesley Hill

Wesley writes as one who is often locked out of conversations on homosexuality. He openly identifies as a gay Christian, yet he also believes in the traditional Christian teaching/practice of celibacy in singleness and chastity in marriage between one man and one woman. In the midst of a grid-locked debate regarding sexuality in the American church, Hill provides a breath of fresh air.

A Blueprint for Discipleship – Kevin Watson

Looking for a simple way to teach others about basic discipleship? Try this book that uses Wesley’s General Rules as a framework.

On the Threshold of Grace – Donald Haynes

I attempted to use this book as the primary text in my Methodism 101. While the chapter structure works well for a discussion of Methodism, the content was poorly edited, confusing for the class, and we scrapped it before it was all over.

Being United Methodist: What It Means, Why It Matters – Ellsworth J. Kalas

A very accessible introduction to the history and practice of Methodism that works well to hand to laity.

Dialogues: Amongst the People Called United Methodists – William Abraham

This is for Methodist insiders. And as David Watson states in his review, this book pulls no punches in its discussion of the state of the UMC today.

For the Sake of the Bride: Restoring the Church to Her Intended Beauty – Steve Harper

Harper’s plea for Christian unity is sincere and needed. However, Harper’s “modest proposal” to redefine Christian marriage in just a few pages with little reflection on scripture and tradition left this book lacking.

Reclaiming the Lost Soul of Youth Ministry – Jeremy Steele

A great discussion starter for a student or family ministry team on how to reclaim depth and a Wesleyan heritage back into your ministry.

The Radical Wesley – Howard Snyder

This updated version of an old classic highlights parts of John Wesley’s life and ministry in ways others rarely do. You’ll come away from reading this (especially Part 1) with a renewed appreciation for the early Methodists and for the work God did through them. You’ll also begin learning how to adopt their patterns and practices into the church today.

Soul Keeping: Caring For the Most Important Part of You  – John Ortberg

The metaphor about the soul as a stream found at the beginning of this book is worth the purchase price. This book served as a good reminder of the importance of soul-care, and while I enjoyed it, most people in the class I taught it in loved it.

Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry – Paul David Tripp

While this book could’ve been fifty pages shorter, it does an excellent job living up to its title. If you’re married and in ministry, I’d highly recommend you read it with your spouse.

Forgiveness: Finding Peace Through Letting Go – Adam Hamilton

A simple book on a complex topic that’s great for small groups or a sermon series.

Forgiving As We’ve Been Forgiven: Community Practices for Making Peace – Greg Jones & Célestin Musekura

A more complex book on a complex topic that helped me while preaching on forgiveness.

In the Name of Jesus – Henri Nouwen

This was the first Nouwen book I had ever read and it made me want to read more. He paints a beautiful picture of cruciform leadership that any Christian leader should aspire to.

Jesus Is Better than You Imagined – Jonathan Merritt

You can read my review here.

Not Yet Christmas: It’s Time for Advent – J.D. Walt

I love reading J.D.’s daily devotionals and this little book provided some needed preparation time for Christmas.

Too Busy Not to Pray – Bill Hybels

A good basic introduction to prayer full of practical advice for individuals.

What should I read this year?

Obviously I need more fiction in my life…