Most believers want to grow spiritually. But often we stumble in our efforts to grow. Is there a key or a silver bullet that catalyzes our spiritual formation? Willow Creek’s Reveal survey of several thousand churches revealed not a silver bullet, but the number one catalyst that believers said contributed most to their growth: Bible reading and reflection. The great leader Nehemiah shows us 8 ways to engage with God’s Word for maximum inpact.
The wall had been built and Ezra gathered the people together and read God’s word to them. Chapter 8 shows us these 8 concepts.
- Congregation: engage God’s Word in community with others. (v1-the people were brought together as God’s Word was read and taught). Hebrews 10.24-25 admonishes us to regularly assemble together.
- Attention: what gets paid attention to gets remembered. (v. 3-they listened attentively). A fundamental principle of learning and memory says that we learn what we pay attention to. The more we learn and remember, the more the Holy Spirit has to work with to effect change in our hearts. What we pay attention to actually causes our brain to change. It’s called neuroplasticity.
- Appreciation: show respect for God’s Word. (v. 5-they stood as God’s Word was read showing respect for it). When we respect God’s Word we are respecting its author.
- Explanation: develop a learning mindset. (v 7-the Levites explained to the people what the Scriptures meant). We must be teachable for God’s Word to change us.
- Application: do what it says. (chapter 9 describes that the people made direct application to their lives by making a commitment to be holy and to give). Neuroscientists have discovered that what we apply directly to our experience sticks with us the longest.
- James 1.22, Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.
- Connection: Let God’s word stir your heart. (v 9-the people were convicted of their and their ancestors’ sins when God’s Word was read). When we read the Bible we must lay our hearts open for the Holy Spirit to bring appropriate conviction of our sins.
- Heb. 4.12 For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires.
- Repetition: What gets repeated gets learned. (v 18-Ezra read God’s Word to them daily). Learning experts have discovered that cramming information at the last minute does not last. Only repeated exposure over time will last. If Sunday is a person’s only encounter with Scripture, they won’t experience the change that could happen were they to engage the Scriptures on a daily basis.
- Satisfaction: Enjoy God’s word. (v 10-Nehemiah encouraged the people to no longer weep but to revel in the truth that the joy of the Lord was their strength). Engaging and embracing God’s Word is not like eating your broccoli. Rather the Bible describes itself like tasty food.
- Jer. 15.16 When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight, for I bear your name, O LORD God Almighty.
The Psalmist captured the essence of the how we should approach and engage God’s Word.
Psa. 119.162 I rejoice in your word like one who discovers a great treasure.
What concepts about God’s Word has spurred your spiritual growth?
Rejection. The sound of the word itself even sounds ominous. If you’ve been a pastor or church leader for any length of time, chances are you’ve felt the dagger of rejection. It may have come intentionally through a serious conflict with a leader who didn’t like or support you. It may have come more subtly when someone quietly leaves your church and the scuttlebutt was that they left because they “weren’t getting fed.” The source doesn’t matter. It still hurts. When it inevitable does come, what can we do? In this post I suggest 7 ways to navigate the pain of rejection.
How Leaders Can Navigate the Pain of Rejection…
- Recognize that you’ve not sinned because you feel hurt. Our brain registers physical pain primarily in two areas of the brain, the insula, which lies deep in our brain, and the anterior cingulate cortex, which lies between our brain’s thinking center and our emotional center. And guess what? Social pain such as rejection registers in the same places. So, rejection actually physically hurts. It’s an automatic response to rejection that God wired into our bodies. So, the bad feelings you experience from rejection don’t mean you’re a weak leader or a sinful person.
- When rejected, admit the pain you feel. Don’t ignore or stuff your emotions. The phrase, “Grown men don’t cry,” implies that a guy should not allow himself to show his ‘soft’ emotions. The problem is, it’s self-defeating. When we stuff or suppress our emotions, it actually makes our painful emotions more intense internally. However, it’s scientifically proven that when we name our painful emotions, we actually lessen their intensity.
- Journal your feelings. Many counselors recommend something called ‘writing therapy,’ a fancy term for journaling. When we feel rejected, journaling our painful feelings can take the sting out of them. Akin to writing therapy is something called ‘talk therapy.’ Again, it’s a fancy term for sharing you pain with others. It’s helpful to find a safe friend to process your feelings when rejected. In this post I share several qualities to look for in a safe friend.
- Refuse to base your identity on your ability to make 100% of the people happy 100% of the time. A temptation every ministry leader faces is to keep people happy 100% of the time. Trying to do that will kill you. We certainly don’t want to intentionally make people mad. But some people will never be pleased, no matter what you do. Jesus, the perfect leader, didn’t please everyone. In fact, John records this uber rejection of Jesus. From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (John 6.66, NIV)
- Don’t magnify the pain by rejecting the rejector in return. It’s tempting to cut your rejectors off by rejecting them. When we do, we only exacerbate our pain. I once had a guy who did his best to convince the board that I was not the right pastor for the church. The board fully backed me. He left. A few months later I saw him in a store and had a choice. Would I walk down another aisle to avoid him, or would I walk toward him and try to shake his hand? I made the latter choice. I walked over, reached out my hand, and said, “Hi.” He glared at me and walked by without shaking my hand. Poor guy. He was a bitter dude. In such cases, apply the words Peter gave us about Jesus’ response to rejection. When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. (I Pt 2.23, NIV)
- Step back to keep or regain perspective. When rejection stings, our perspective can quickly become cloudy. We can easily extrapolate the rejection in our minds and assume that many other people feel the same way or will do the same thing (i.e., I wonder who else is leaving the church?). Remember, a rejection by one person is…rejection by one person. Such rejection seldom reflects the viewpoints of others. So, guard against the proverbial, “blowing things out of proportion.”
- If it’s a serious rejection, get professional help. Sometimes rejection is such a deep blow that we can’t navigate it on our own with a good cry or coffee with a friend. You may need professional help. Losing a job, losing a vote of confidence from your board, or significant numbers of people leaving your ministry probably qualify as significant rejections. Don’t feel ashamed to seek professional help. If you break an arm, you’ll see a doctor. If your heart gets broken, find a wise counselor to help bring healing.
Sometimes we’d rather experience physical pain that social pain, for good reason. Our brains are wired to recall the emotional pain of past rejection, but not past physical pain. So, rejection potentially carries a long lasting impact on our souls. Don’t take it lightly. Deal with it sooner that later.
What has helped you deal with rejection in ministry?
I invest 15-20 hours each week to prepare a Sunday sermon. If you’re a pastor, I’m sure you invest similar time. Have you ever wondered, though, how much of your sermons really stick in your listeners’ minds to help them become spiritually transformed? I have, many times. As I’m learning more about how God fashioned our brain to work in learning environments, I’m testing what I’m learning as I preach. I just began a series on Romans at our church and I created a new sermon note taking template (below) based on some science-based learning principles. I describe it here and include some screen shots if you’d like to modify it for your use.
First, a few basic details.
- It’s a front and back insert. The image in this post includes both front and back.
- We hole punch it so people can put it into a notebook, rather than the recycle bin.
- The front includes basic details such as date, passage, speaker, etc.
Now, some of the science based principles.
- All Learning is Based on Prior Learning: Next week’s passage. At the top on the front page, I include the following week’s Scripture passage. I encourage our people to read that passage at least five days of the next seven, three times at each sitting. The more familiar they are with the passage I will preach from, the more what they hear will resonate because they are already familiar with the passage. All learning is based on prior learning and the more they know about the passage, the more sticky your sermon will be.
- Gist or Verbatim memory: Today’s Big Idea. I try to boil down the message into one core statement. [This particular week I simply gave an overview of the book and then shared 9 ways the listener could get the most from the series.] When we speak, we must balance two kinds of memory, gist memory –this means what it says, the gist of what you are preaching, which, by the way, sticks in memory longer – and verbatim memory – specific details of your sermon. The big idea captures the one overall concept, gist memory, what I hope the people retain if they forget everything else.
- Neurons that fire together, wire together: Last Week’s Big Idea. Although the graphic does not include this line because that Sunday was week one of the series, in future weeks I will include the prior week’s big idea. Repetition truly is the key to learning. The more specific neurons fire together, the more our brain wires itself around what made it fire (it’s called ‘Hebbian Law’). So, when you repeat something, neural circuits around that repeated concept get strengthened. Repeating the prior week’s big idea can help imbed those key concepts you hope will get retained.
- The Protege Effect: Today’s Key Insight. Students who help tutor other students consistently outperform other students. It’s the old “you want to learn something, teach someone else” concept. On the second page at the top is a box where people can write down one or two key insights that stood out the most from the sermon. I encourage them to envision teaching someone else that concept. Even imagining this will help imbed learning – even better, actually doing it.
- Social Learning: Today’s Lunch Question. Next, on the backside of the insert I include a box with a question about the sermon. I encourage our people to discuss it at lunch with their friends and family. This process, called social learning (processing what we learn with others) is proven to help deepen learning. As we dialogue with others, we gain different perspectives and new insights, which makes our sermons stickier.
These and other learning techniques you can apply around sermon note taking can help imbed the biblical truths about which you area preaching. Of course, ultimately the Holy Spirit brings transformation. John reminds us of this here.
But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. (John 14.26)
What has helped make your sermons sticker?
Some time back I read an incredible book – Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Dr. Brene Brown. I highly recommend it. Her TED talk on this subject has garnered over 30,000,000 views. She strikes a chord for leaders about risking vulnerability. As a pastor vulnerability is scary and carries risks with which we must practice care when being vulnerable. As risky as it is, Dr. Brown says it’s a key to what she calls wholehearted living, what I’d called a Spirit-filled life. She says we live in a culture of scarcity and poses 14 questions in her book (p. 27) in three categories that caused me to reflect deeply about my family, my ministry, and my world. I’ve quoted some here and paraphrased others.
14 really scary questions about vulnerability…
As you read them, what is God saying to you about your family, your life, and your ministry?
- Is my self worth tied to achievement, productivity, or compliance?
- Do I use the threat of belittling or ridicule to keep people in line?
- Are put-downs and name-calling rampant?
- Are blaming and finger pointing norms?
- Am I guilty of favoritism?
- Am I a perfectionist?
- Has my creativity been suffocated?
- Do I constantly compare and rank myself against others?
- Are people in my family or church held to one narrow standard rather than acknowledged for their unique gifts and contributions?
- Is there an ideal way of being or one form of talent that is used to measure everyone else’s worth?
- Is everyone struggling to be seen and heard?
- Are people afraid to take risks or try new things?
- Does it feel as if no one is really paying attention or listening?
- Is it easier to stay quiet than share stories, experiences, and ideas?
As you read these, what question really resonated with you?
What question would you add to this list?
In Os Guiness’ excellent book, Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion, he used the phrase, ‘weapons of mass distraction,’ to describe how people today distract themselves to avoid facing their inconsistent and broken beliefs about God and eternal matters. He writes that while distraction may feel good in the short-term (we avoid the discomfort of inconsistent belief and behavior), it’s disastrous in the long-term. Mass distraction is also a fitting metaphor for how leaders sometimes get sidetracked from the business of leading. Ask yourself which of these four weapons of mass distraction divert you the most from leading at your best.
- Sometimes we get lulled into thinking we can multi-task and get more done… keep email and text alerts on as we prepare a sermon (if you’re a pastor) or as you think through a critical strategy as a leader. We think that giving 90% effort to an important task and 10% effort to a distraction equals 100% of our effort. Actually, each time we shift from one task to another and then shift back, the sum total of our effort gets diluted. It never equals 100%. There is a cognitive cost. It’s called attention residue – it takes time for our minds to disengage from the distraction and get back on task. And, researchers have discovered that constantly emailing or texting temporarily decreases our IQ.
- Solution: turn off your phone and automatic alerts.
- Continuous partial attention.
- Linda Stone, a former VP at Microsoft coined the term. She describes it this way. “To pay continuous partial attention is to keep a top-level item in focus, and constantly scan the periphery in case something more important emerges.” As a result, this “always on” mode puts our brains on constant alert, thus flooding them with too much stress hormone which slows processing.
- Solution: Schedule your best thinking time in a quiet, distraction free environments. I use a niche in my office that blocks me from seeing people pass by my office window.
- Dopamine addiction.
- Dopamine is one of over 100 chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters. Simply put, a neurotransmitter is a chemical messenger the brain uses to send messages from one brain cell (a neuron) to the next. As a feel good neurotransmitter, it kicks in during activities that bring us pleasure – from checking off items on your to-do list to eating a bowl of triple-fudge marshmallow creme ice cream to seeing more ‘likes’ on your Facebook posts. It’s also involved in drug, alcohol, and sexual addition. Although we may not struggle with serious addictions like drug abuse, we can easily get sucked into social media dopamine addiction when we constantly check to see ‘what’s new’ or ‘who likes me’ on social media. When we see a ‘like’ or a funny cat video, we get a little shot of dopamine and we want more, so we keep surfing.
- Solution: Set aside only certain times of the day when you surf social media. If you are hooked, go on a social media fast to break yourself from this addition.
- Striving to get to a next better moment.
- This one is a bit more subtle but Blaise Pascal captures it in this saying. “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” In other words, one weapon of mass distraction is the inability to be OK in this present moment. We’re often tempted to move to a next better moment to escape the current painful or boring moment thinking that if I just get to a better one, things will be better.
- Solution: Try mindfulness practice, a scientifically based spiritual practice that helps you learn to live in the present moment. Learn more here about Christian mindfulness.
In our fast-paced, demanding world, weapons of mass distraction lurk around every corner. When we heed Peter’s command in God’s Word, we can counter those distractions.
1Peter 5.8 Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.
Which of these weapons of mass distraction most tempt you? What would you add to this list?