I’ve been teaching a Preaching Lab this summer, where a bunch of men and women are learning the basics of preaching and then preaching a practice sermon. This week one of the participants asked me a good question about the sermon prep process and sermon notes, and I thought I’d share my answer.

Q: When you prepare your sermon, do you rehearse it, if so, how many times, and what does that look like? Is it a “full dress rehearsal”? Do you record or time yourself to make sure you hit all points in allotted time? Or is it more like a rough rehearsal and run through of your outline with guesstimations and or experienced gauging of each point? I think I struggle with this most, because if I just use outline as a backbone, I tend to go over time, but if I stick to notes, I feel stifled and like I’m reading cue cards. Just wondering what your prep looks like.

A: What I do now is very different from where I started and I don’t think I could do what I do now without starting how I started.

When I first got into preaching, I was expected by those who trained me to write out a full manuscript of the message. I didn’t necessarily have to preach from the manuscript, but I had to write it out. This was helpful because it forced me to organize my thoughts, see if they were clear, and think through smooth transitions. It was also helpful because I could read it out loud and gauge how long the sermon would be.

The challenge, however, was that I would often read big chunks from the manuscript during the sermon itself, which is disengaging.

I’ve always admired guys who can preach without notes (Robert Gelinas is one of my favorites). I think it’s more engaging and feels more authoritative, like you really know what you’re talking about.

So one time, about 7-8 years ago, I decided I wanted to try giving a message with zero notes. I figured I would either bomb or it would go well. The fear of bombing and freezing on stage with nothing to say drove me to really get to know the message. So I read the manuscript out loud multiple times, with an almost preaching voice. I created a simple, memorable outline and spent a lot of time learning it. Not memorizing words (I didn’t want to just recite it), but getting so familiar with the content that I could just talk about it.

Thankfully, I didn’t bomb and a number of close friends said it was the best sermon I had given to that point. The lessons were (a) the fewer notes the better and (b) I needed to get to know the content better if I was going to be effective.

When I started preaching weekly in 2009, I tried to do this same basic approach. However, I found that with the other time demands of church planting, getting to zero notes was really hard. So I would write out a manuscript and then turn it into a short, 1 page preaching outline. Over time, I stopped writing out the manuscript and just develop a preaching outline, typically anywhere between 1-3 pages (see an example here). I still work to know the big points and illustrations well so that I don’t have to be too tied to notes. Some messages are better than others.

As far as time and rehearsal, this also has adapted over time. I’ve had times when I’ve “preached to the empty seats” as a way to run things through ahead of time. Nelson Searcy says this “doubles the effectiveness of your preaching.” I still do this sometimes, but usually only if it’s a message that I don’t feel as comfortable with either because I think it’s going to be too long and I need to gauge what to cut or if it’s a particularly tricky message that I want to be sure to get right. For instance, when I preached on homosexuality last year I did a full run-through on stage with the staff in the room to practice and get feedback.

Time is one of those things that I have a feel for from lots of repetition. I can usually gauge about how long it will be from my notes. For somebody without as much experience, the best way to gauge time is to either read the manuscript or practice the sermon.

Nonetheless, it should be noted that I do still struggle to stay within the time (our worship leader could tell you, since we sometimes have to cut a song). Also, I tend to go longer on the second sermon than the first, partly because I think of more things to say and also because there’s a little more flexibility without another service coming. That said, I think around 35-40 minutes is a sweeter spot for me. My favorite preachers usually go about 35 minutes and I’m not as good as them. As Justin Anderson has said, “Sermons are not measured in minutes. They are measured in minutes beyond interest.” I’d rather go shorter and really pack a punch than ramble on. But sometimes I like to hear myself talk.

Hope this helps.

[Click here for other posts on preaching]

I like Jesus, but I don’t really trust the Bible.”

This is a very common thought today. Many people like Jesus (or at least their sanitized, politically correct idea of him), but view the Bible as repressive, outdated, filled with errors, and unnecessary. Can you trust the Bible?

This raises an even more interesting question: What did Jesus think of the Bible?

Kevin DeYoung answered this question was answered magnificently at this year’s Together for the Gospel (T4G) conference. I found his message, “Never Spoke a Man Like This Before: Inerrancy, Evangelism and Christ’s Unbreakable Bible,” to be a truly helpful apologetic for the trustworthiness of Scripture.

I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Watch the video.
Listen to the audio.
Get the T4G podcast.

Last week our church hosted 150 kids from 5-10 years old for Vacation Bible School. This was our third year of VBS and I volunteered to teach. I was assigned to a group of 8 year-olds and it was a fun, tiring week.


Here’s what I learned:

1. Leaders must bring energy. It’s not a secret that kids have energy. Lots of it. So if you want to connect with them relationally, you better bring some energy. Additionally, they respond to and feed off your excitement. This is true in all leadership. Followers feed off the leaders’ energy. It’s why leaders must manage their energy as much as they manage their time. (Here’s a great book on this)

2. Teachers must be engaging. One of the reasons I volunteered was to stretch myself as a communicator. You may ask, “How is teaching kids stretching yourself?” Well, adults are at least polite and self-controlled enough to pretend to listen even when they’re not. But with kids, you can tell instantly whether they’re following you or in la-la land.

Therefore, it’s not enough to teach the material. You have to teach it in an engaging way. You have to ask good questions. You have to use examples they understand and get excited about. You have to adjust your voice inflection to draw them in. You have to tell interesting stories. Otherwise, you might as well not teach it because they won’t get it. Again, this is true in all teaching, just more obvious with kids.

3. Everything’s better with fun. Almost everyone I know likes to have fun, especially kids. When experiences are fun, it makes for better learning and stronger relationships. Sometimes leaders avoid fun because we are so focused on the task at hand or because it feels like a waste of time or money. But I’m leaving this VBS even more committed to making fun part of our leadership culture.

4. Kids know their stuff. It was encouraging to see the kids in my class engage with the story of the gospel. On our last day, we were talking about the crown of righteousness that the Lord will award to those who have loved his appearing (2 Tim 4:8). I asked the kids, “What are some things you would want to do if you thought there was a decent chance Jesus was coming back this afternoon?” Below are their answers.

Honestly, I’m pretty wiped after last week. It was a great experience. Not sure yet whether I’ll do it again next year, but if you’re a leader it’s worth having some experience teaching kids. You’ll grow from it and so will they.

Summer is often a retooling time for churches. Many ministries slow down and it’s an opportunity to adjust before the fall. At Redemption Gateway, we’re in a season where we’re working hard to “get better before bigger.” This phrase comes from Truett Cathy (via Andy Stanley’s podcast) and resonates deeply with us right now.


Along these lines, I wanted to share a few articles that have challenged me lately and could help any ministry get better.

5 Keys of Effective Leadership Development by Brent Dolfo. Any church that is trying to get better needs to focus on developing more leaders. I think we currently have about 1.5 of these 5 Keys, and we’re kind of known as a church that develops leaders. Still room to grow.

Changing the Real Reason You Don’t Get More Volunteers by Jeff Brodie. We need to get better at recruiting and retaining volunteers. As the church has gotten bigger, this is much harder. This article has an important paradigm shift.

7 Leadership Tensions in Growing Churches by Rich Birch. We read this article together as a staff recently and a lot of it resonated. How you navigate these tensions is crucial.

If you have any resources to share, leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you as I’m always on the lookout for good resources and articles that will help us get better.


think pair shareLeaders must lead engaging discussions. Rallying people always involves conversations that elicit their feedback and encourage their participation. Whether you’re a pastor, a kids ministry teacher or a small group leader, you must lead engaging discussions. One of the most helpful tools for this is “think-pair-share.”

First a story…

About 11 years ago I was helping lead a college ministry and throughout the summer we had a number of events called “summer gatherings” (creative, huh?). Our topic related to Christian Hedonism and the glory of God and I was in charge of leading one of the first gatherings.

We were talking about some BIG things. Deep things. And I just dove in, asking the group of 30-40 collegians right off the bat what they thought about why God created everything, where we find our greatest joy and a bunch of other stuff.

Crickets. Nobody spoke. Well, except for one guy who was the smartest in the room, had been high school valedictorian and went on to earn a theological degree. He was happy to participate, but his participation only made everyone else feel stupid and they withdrew even more. It was a rough night.

Fortunately, my mom was visiting and was in attendance. She’s an experienced school teacher and trainer with The Write Tools, and she said, “I think I have something that will help you: think-pair-share.”

She was right. We used think-pair-share the next week and it was shockingly different. Everyone engaged. Even the timid folks got involved. It was a game-changer. I’ve used it ever since.

How does think-pair-share work?

1. Think. The leader asks a question and gives everyone a few moments to quietly think about their answer. They may even want to write some thoughts down. Few people are instant processors, so this gives them time to gather their thoughts. This is crucial because often the leader has spent hours, days or weeks thinking of an answer to the question and then expects people to engage after thinking about it for two seconds. This stage also gets everyone involved rather than people disengaging because they know the over-eager person in the group will do the thinking for them.

2. Pair. The leader then instructs everyone to turn to a partner and share their thoughts. Sharing with one person is a much easier first step than sharing with the group. This gives them a chance to compare ideas as well as builds confidence that their thoughts are not crazy.

3. Share. Now the leader invites the entire group to share their answers. By this time, everyone has had multiple opportunities to process and confidence is strong. Many good ideas emerge rather than just one quick-thinking person dominating the conversation.

I have found think-pair-share to be crazy simple and shockingly effective. Give it a try and let me know how it goes.


Real love is real hard.

Harder than we often think. Reading some of Jesus’ words recently exposed what I think is the hardest part of real love:

[32] “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. [33] And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. [34] And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. [35] But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. [36] Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:32-36 ESV)

The hardest part of real love is “expecting nothing in return.”

Loving this way is what demonstrates that you are a child of God, who loves us this way.

Leader, you know that you are called to love the people in your care. You know that your leadership means nothing if you don’t have love (1 Corinthians 13:2).

Love expects nothing in return. May this reality shape the way you lead and love.

I recently met with our Pastoral Residents to discuss preaching. Faithful preaching is a crucial part of a healthy church, and we are trying to help these guys develop into faithful preachers. This raises the question, “What makes up faithful preaching?”

faithful preaching

I think there are at least four marks of faithful preaching and, conveniently, they begin with “P.” Additionally, failure to be faithful to each of these things leads in some disastrous directions.

1. Faithful to the Passage.

Faithful preaching accurately interprets the text of Scripture. This means that the author’s intended meaning for the passage is understood and proclaimed. Additionally, faithfulness to the passage means that the tone of the sermon is consistent with the passage (i.e. a sermon on a threatening passage doesn’t feel lighthearted) and the confidence of the sermon is in line with the clarity of the passage (i.e. dogmatic where the text is clear). Sometimes preachers emphasize ideas that are biblical but are not coming from the passage under consideration. This is not faithfulness to the passage.

Faithful to the passage also means understanding God’s missional purpose for the text. Scripture is not there just to proclaim truth or record history, but to shape a missional people who represent God to the world through their deeds and words.

Without this, preaching lacks authority. It’s powerless and relying on the preacher’s ingenuity rather than the authority of God.

2. Faithful to the People.

Faithful preaching lovingly understands the people in the audience. The context that people live in matters. A faithful preacher would not preach the same way with the same illustrations and emphasis to Jr. High students as he would to a group of young moms. One way I seek to address this in my weekly preparation is by creating a half-sheet with photos of people from our congregation. I look at this throughout the preparation process asking, “How would this sermon connect with him, her, etc?”

Without this, preaching is irrelevant. Not that the message is irrelevant, but it is perceived that way by people who don’t feel the preacher understands them.

3. Faithful to the Preparation.

Faithful preaching takes preparation seriously. Preachers vary in terms of how much time they want and need to faithfully prepare. The more experienced you are, the less time it often takes. On the other hand, Tim Keller suggests that preaching in a post-Christian society takes more preparation. Each preacher will have to decide what it looks like for him to create consistently strong sermons and then work to be faithful to that process.

Interestingly, I’ve heard a number of interviews lately with Peyton Manning and Mike Krzyzewski where people have asked them about how much time they have left before retiring. Both said that they “still enjoyed the preparation,” and that when that wasn’t enjoyable, they would stop.

Without this, preaching is shallow. It takes time and work to create sermons that apply the gospel to the heart.

4. Faithful to your Personality.

Faithful preaching is consistent with your personality. Each preacher is different and has a different personality. Justin Anderson argues that your sermon voice should be a notch or two above your regular voice but not so different that your kids can’t recognize you. One of the big mistakes young preachers make is imitating (often unintentionally) the preachers they listen to. Finding your voice takes time, but faithful preaching requires that you are faithful to who God has made you to be.

Without this, preaching is inauthentic. It feels forced and awkward if it is out of sync with your personality.

Every preacher I know wants to be faithful, and I’ve found this grid helpful for analyzing both individual sermons and the course of my preaching ministry over time.

Avoid Ministry Porn

May 8, 2014 — 6 Comments

For most pastors, it usually starts with the opening of a laptop. Sometimes it’s on a smartphone or tablet. Often, another pastor recommended it.

With a few simple clicks, the video rolls or the sound begins. The faces and voices are familiar, but the settings change. The best sites have fresh content. New things never before tried or seen. The more shocking, the better.

Hours go by. Work is ignored and relationships are minimized as the pastor is sucked in.

Ministry porn.

It’s seductive, addictive, and pervasive among young pastors.

ministry porn

The good news is that I’m not talking about pastors who consume actual pornography through sexually illicit content (though statistics show this is too common).

The bad news is that I am talking about something that is hurting church planters and pastors everywhere, killing their creativity, work ethic, and productivity. By extension, this problem is afflicting the churches these men lead.

So, what is “ministry porn”?

Ministry porn is voyeuristically viewing how other pastors and churches do ministry, fantasizing about their lives and situations, and, thus, avoiding the real work of leading people and building your own ministry.

Take a few moments to consider the problems with actual pornography and you’ll see why this idea is dangerous for pastors.

1. Porn is an escape. People use it to escape their stressful lives, difficult marriages and personal insecurities. Similarly, ministry porn provides an escape from leading real ministry, which is often filled with tough decisions, unrealistic expectations, and difficult people.

2. Porn is a way to avoid real intimacy. It is a “false intimacy,” offering the illusion of being loved, wanted, and enjoyed while the user is actually alone, ashamed, and afraid of real relational depth. Similarly, ministry porn offers the illusion of impacting people while the pastor is actually avoiding real relationships where he could make a real difference.

3. Porn is unrealistic. It involves not-even-close-to-ordinary people doing things that most real people do not do. Similarly, ministry porn involves out-of-this-world leaders who are often in very unusual ministry situations. Comparing your ministry to the top 1% of church leaders and their churches—filled with more money, talent, and resources than you can imagine—will inevitably leave you feeling dissatisfied with reality.

4. Porn is distractingly available. Technology means porn is available anywhere at anytime. Those struggling with porn find this to be an almost-constant distraction. Similarly, technology has allowed pastors access to ministry porn they would have never had 20 years ago. Blogs, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook provide persistent opportunities for distraction from real ministry and real people.

5. Porn is deceitful. One time an engaged guy told me he needed to watch porn to do research on how to make love to his future wife. Terrible idea. Total deception. Similarly, pastors can succumb to ministry porn while convincing themselves they are doing research or just trying to learn. There’s obviously a better argument for this than the one the engaged guy was making. But pastors should be careful. What starts as genuine learning can easily turn into you being a busybody, keeping up on what the celebrity pastors are up to.

In my experience of church planting, I’ve fallen into ministry porn too many times. I love to learn, I’m well connected, and I’m pretty good with technology, making me an easy target. But, too often, I’ve wasted time and energy following what other guys are doing more than actually developing what God has assigned me to do. Thus, I’ve had to closely monitor how much time I’m spending watching talks, reading blogs, and skimming social media feeds. At times, I’ve had to take a break or significantly trim my subscriptions.

Doing ministry well is hard work. It demands big buckets of emotional energy, time with people, intense study, and strategic thinking. In church planting, everyone you lead is a volunteer—making your work even more challenging. All of this can make you want to escape.

Don’t do it. The joy of ministry comes when real people have been impacted by real work, time and relationship.


5 Dangers of Success

May 7, 2014 — 2 Comments

Everyone wants success, but few consider the dangers that come with it. Wise leaders — especially those experiencing some measure of success — should be aware.

This came to mind most recently on a vacation in Flagstaff when I was walking through a bookstore and came upon Wooden: A Coach’s Life by Seth Davis. The quote on the front page was so striking that I took a photo of it:

danger of success

Very interesting. Wooden seems to be saying that some success is great, but a lot of success is such a dangerous challenge that you’d only wish it on your enemies. By the way, Wooden would know — he won ten national championships in a 12-year period, including seven in a row.

After seeing this quote, I was preparing some messages for a men’s retreat related to the Joseph story. In reading Tim Keller’s study guide about Joseph, Living in a Pluralistic Society, he makes the point that the success Joseph had in Potiphar’s house inevitably led to the temptation from Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39:5-7). Then he described five dangers that come from success:

1. Success breeds an over-confidence in one’s opinions. Successful people have had their hunches pay off very well. As a result, they now over-trust their hunches in almost every category of thought and life. Though they may have been successful in one area, they tend to feel that they are experts in other areas as well. (Temptation to pride)

2. Success breeds spiritual sluggishness. We feel secure in our money or our acclaim and this masks our need for God. As you get older, you may learn that success does not make you immune from heartache, disease, death, broken relationships — and you are as helpless and in need of God as anyone else. But at first, success makes you feel you don’t need God. (Temptation to indifference)

3. Success attracts envy and resentment on the part of others, who will try to use you and manipulate you or bring you down. Often you will find that success has brought you into strategems that you did not have the wisdom to handle. Successful people can become extremely mistrustful of people as a result. (Temptation to cynicism and isolation)

4. Success makes you completely unprepared for inevitable failures. It lures you into thinking that life will be a bowl of cherries. (Temptation to naïveté)

5. Success in money or fame inevitably leads to sexual temptation. Many people are attracted to power and success and will throw themselves sexually at you if you have it. (Temptation to impurity)

What’s the conclusion? Should leaders sandbag their gifts and strengths and aim for mediocrity? Should we bury our talents?


But we should be very careful to heed the Apostle Paul’s warning in 1 Timothy 4:16 to “keep a close watch on yourself.” We should surround ourselves with trusted friends who can see these dangers in us and point them out. We must be aware of these dangers and fight them.

This past weekend I spoke at a men’s retreat for Desert View Bible Church. There were about 140 men, mostly guys who attend the church. One of the men works with Alongside Ministries, a ministry that provides Christ-centered mentoring to the incarcerated community. He brought about 15 men who have been released from prison in the last year and now live in a transitional discipleship home, where they are learning to walk with Christ “on the outside.”

Alongside Ministries

The retreat was a blessing for many reasons. But one of the highlights was spending time with these ex-cons. They all thought I was the teacher for the weekend, but I think I learned a lot more from them:

1. Realizing the depth of your sin makes you more grateful to God. These men were grateful. Thankfulness oozed out of them everywhere. They loved singing praise songs and jumped right in, even if they didn’t already know the songs. They loved walking outside in the cool mountain air. They loved the camp food. They loved all the fellowship. There was an appreciation of the small things that was convicting and refreshing for me. And it comes from knowing, with clarity, what they’ve been saved from.

2. Broken people are accepting people. At meal time, it was open seating and I moved around to a bunch of tables to meet different guys. The most friendly and accepting guys were the ex-cons. They know what it’s like to be looked down on and avoided, and they go out of their way to make sure others don’t feel that way.

3. Jesus truly makes people new. A number of these guys had been in prison 20+ years, but they were new men in Christ. Except for their passion for Jesus and gratitude for everything, you wouldn’t have even realized they were ex-cons.

4. The Bible is a rich well for those who will take the time to drink from it. Many of these men knew the Bible really well. I think that’s partly because they didn’t have a lot else to do, but it’s mostly because the depth of their salvation makes them hungry for God’s word. One guy practically recited my sermon notes to me before I spoke just because he knew the Bible so well. I said, “Maybe you should teach this.” How much spiritual richness do we forfeit because we are too lazy or too busy to soak up Scripture?

5. What man intends for evil, God intends for good. The theme of the weekend was “Faithful,” as we looked at the faithfulness of God in the story of Joseph and Judah (Genesis 37-50). The key verse is Genesis 50:20, where Joseph tells his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” One of the men told me he shared the gospel with 14 cell mates and 6 came to faith in Christ. He started praying, “God, I’ll gladly stay in prison if it means you’ll use me to win more people to Christ.” At the end of the story he said, God meant it all for good. I don’t know the specifics of the crime that landed this man in prison. But what he intended for evil, God intended for good.

6. It’s really fun to preach and lead when people are fired up. I already knew this, but what a great reminder. What a blessing to teach people who are eager to learn and hungry for God. May we give this gift to those who lead us.

7. It’s challenging to have your identity be in Christ instead of your past. Many of these men are now struggling to figure out how to have their identity be in Christ, rather than what it used to be in — their crime(s). They are no longer inmates, but this identity clings nearby. Ironically, it reminded me of the many former athletes I know who struggle to integrate into normal life after being set apart for so long. Just goes to show that all of us struggle to find our identity in Christ instead of what we do or have done.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” That’s what I saw this weekend.