Sermon illustrations


The Art of Followship

Editor’s Note: The following illustration came from one of my own (Stu’s) sermons, as I was trying to help the congregation make a paradigm shift from the church as a building, to the people of God:

So, what exactly is a disciple? On one level the answer is simple: a disciple is a follower of Jesus. Now in our culture, the word “follower” is often quite negative: a follower is the opposite of a leader. And we are all called to be leaders, at least according to our culture.

Leadership is an entire genre for books, for conferences, etc… If you can still find a brick and mortar bookstore, you will find a leadership section.

Interestingly enough, I’ve never seen a follower section in a bookstore, have you? Now “followers” as a term has gained some popularity in recent years because of social media. Instagram and Twitter enable people both famous and almost famous to try to build their own brand by gaining “Followers”. But again, the whole point is that you need to be a leader, so that other people can follow you.

So isn’t it interesting that the primary word for people who worship Jesus as Lord and Savior is the word “follower:? (disciple) Now in the context of Jesus’ day, a disciple was a follower not just in a general sense, but also in a particular way. A disciple tended to be either a pupil, someone that would sit at the feet of a master or be an apprentice in some sort of trade.

And I think there is something to this, that even for the first disciples, they never graduated into something else. They always remained disciples, that is followers of Jesus.

And one of the many reasons for this is that a disciple is always in a position of humility, right? They are never the master with all the answers, but always the ones who sit at the feet of Jesus. So being a disciple is to be a follower, but not just in a casual way. An apprentice or a pupil has essentially given up a whole variety of opportunities to follow the one master. We can follow a lot of things, sports teams, musicians, politicians, etc…but to be a disciple of someone is to turn your life over to them and ask that their wisdom might help direct your life. So that’s discipleship…it’s following Jesus every day, becoming more and more like Him.

Stuart Strachan Jr., Sermon: Matt.28: The Art of Followship.

Becoming a Tiller of Soil

One of my favorite sections of Home Depot is the power garden tool department. Even though I have all the tools I need, I still like browsing through Home Depot’s collection of power mowers, chainsaws, and string trimmers (better known as “weed whackers”). Among all of those machines you can find some power tillers. These tools look rather like lawnmowers, but in place of horizontal blades that cut grass they have vertical blades that cut and turn up the soil. In a word, they till.

According to the NRSV, God put the man in the garden “to till it and keep it.” “Till” is a reasonable translation of the Hebrew verb ‘avad in this context…“To till” means to break up, plow, or turn up the soil before planting. Tilling enables hard ground to accept seeds. It aerates soil that has been tamped down. It can help fertilizer to be absorbed into the dirt prior to planting. Tilling isn’t planting seeds, caring for young plants, or harvesting. Rather, it is preparing the soil for fruitfulness that is to come.

There is an element of metaphorical tilling in work beyond farming. Teachers till when they prepare a learning environment. Managers till by seeing that the environments, systems, and relationships in their care will allow those they supervise to work well. Leaders till by shaping corporate cultures, defining core values, and lifting up compelling vision. Often, we have to break up old assumptions and practices for the seeds of innovation to be planted and grow.

Of course, so much more could be said about how our work is a form of tilling. Preparing, planning, and prioritizing could all be forms of tilling. Tilling describes work that prepares the soil, so to speak. It gets things ready for new life and for ultimate fruitfulness. Tilling is a central task of our lives, one that God has entrusted to us so that we might fulfill his intentions for our work.

Taken from Mark D. Roberts, Life for Leaders, a Devotional Resource of the DePree Leadership Center at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Canoing the Mountains

In their book Leadership on the Line, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky describe adaptive challenges as the work confronting a leader when there is no known fix to a problem. It’s when “best practices” are irrelevant, when there is no “expertise” at hand, no personal experience to draw on that is relevant to the challenge of the moment.

When a leader and an organization are facing a sudden disruption, a completely unforeseen “black swan” event, or uncharted territory, a different kind of leadership is needed. It’s like when Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, Sacagawea, and the expert river navigators that made up the Corps of Discovery looked over the Lemihi Pass in Montana.

Their commission had been to navigate from the fork where the Missouri River emptied into the Mississippi River in St. Charles, Missouri, to the source of the Missouri River and to find the connection to the Columbia River that would provide an all-water route from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic.

After eighteen months of traveling upstream, a long winter with the Mandan tribe in North Dakota, a strenuous passage over the Great Falls of Montana, and a winding, long slog up a rapidly dwindling creek, they had indeed found the source of the Missouri. Following a short hike to the top of the pass, Meriwether Lewis and his scouting party expected to find another stream that would become the Columbia River and propel them downstream to the Pacific Ocean and the accomplishment of their mission: finding a navigable water route across the continent.

Those dreams were disrupted when this band of expert river explorers discovered that they were instead facing hundreds of miles of foreboding Rocky Mountains with steep, soaring peaks that made water navigation impossible. Adaptive leadership is what is needed at moments like that: when you find yourself without a map and recognizing that you have to lead your people into a reality where the world in front of you is nothing like the world behind you.

There is no clear plan, no map to follow, no past expertise to give confidence to both the leader and followers. Instead the leader must calmly and courageously tell the truth about their condition, and when asked, “What do we do?” must say the three hardest words for any leader to say: “I don’t know.” And then you begin the process of learning, facing loss, and navigating competing values that is at the heart of adaptive leadership.

Taken from Leadership for a Time of Pandemic: Practicing Resilience by Tod E. Bolsinger Copyright (c) 2020 by Tod E. Bolsinger. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com


Doing the Work Before the Work

In his highly insighful work, Inside Job, Stephen W. Smith provides an important analogy about the importance of spiritually preparing ourselves for the adversity and challenges that come with success in the world:

Long ago a Chinese man began his career making bell stands for the huge bronze bells that hung in Buddhist temples. This man became prized and celebrated for making the best, most elaborate and enduring bell stands in the entire region. No other person could make the bell stands with such strength and beauty.

His reputation grew vast and his skill was in high demand. One day the celebrated woodcarver was asked, “Please tell us the secret of your success!” He replied: Long before I start making and carving the bell stand, I go into the forest to do the work before the work.

I look at all of the hundreds of trees to find the ideal tree—already formed by God to become a bell stand. I look for the boughs of the tree to be massive, strong and already shaped. It takes a long time to find the right tree. But without doing the work before the work, I could not do what I have accomplished.

Taken from Inside Job by Stephen W. Smith (c) 2009 by Stephen W. Smith. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

The Drama of Leadership

The most highly classified document in the United States government is called the President’s Daily Brief. Usually delivered to the president in person each morning by the director of national intelligence, the brief summarizes the most critical information that the United States’ vast network of intelligence agencies has learned in the previous twenty-four hours. Of all the briefs prepared since the practice began in 1961, only two pages have ever been released to the public—an entry called “Bin Laden Determined To Strike in US” that was presented to the president on August 6, 2001.

Every morning, the president hears an unvarnished, detailed account of all the threats facing the country. Then comes the rest of the day’s agenda. Ceremonies, meetings, phone calls, the occasional press conference, state dinners—and during them all, the president knows what almost no one else knows to the same degree of detail. And of all that troubling and terrifying knowledge, the president cannot speak a word. The drama of leadership is hidden vulnerability.

Taken from Strong and Weak by Andy Crouch. Copyright (c) 2016 by Andy Crouch. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

The Good Shepherd Leads

In his excellent study of the famous Biblical passage on shepherds, (The Good Shepherd: A Thousand Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament), scholar Ken Bailey provides context to the 23rd Psalm:

The good shepherd “leads me”; he does not “drive me.” There is a marked difference. In Egypt where there is no open pasture land I have often seen shepherds driving their sheep from behind with sticks. But in the open wilderness of the Holy Land the shepherd walks slowly ahead of his sheep and either plays his own ten-second tune on a pipe or (more often) sings his own unique “call.”

The sheep appear to be attracted primarily by the voice of the shepherd, which they know and are eager to follow. It is common practice for a number of shepherds to gather at midday around a spring or well, where the sheep mingle, drink and rest. At any time one of the shepherds can decide to leave, and on giving his call all his sheep will immediately separate themselves from the mixed flocks and follow their shepherd wherever he leads them.

Taken from The Good Shepherd: A Thousand-Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament by Kenneth E. Bailey, Copyright (c) 2014, pp.41-42, by Kenneth E. Bailey. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

An Interesting Advertisement

Early in this century a London newspaper carried an advertisement that read: “Men wanted for hazardous darkness, and constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.” The ad, signed by famous Arctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, brought Inquiries from thousands of men. Commenting on this in his book Be Faithful, Warren W. Wiersbe said, “If Jesus Christ had advertised for workers, the announcement might have read something like this:

Men and women wanted for difficult task of helping to build My church. You will often be misunderstood, even by those working with you. You will face constant attack from an invisible enemy. You may not see the results of your labor, and your full reward will not come till after all your work is completed. It may cost you your home, your ambitions, even your life.’

Our Daily Bread

Jesus’ Most Radical Social Teaching

The most radical social teaching of Jesus was his total reversal of the contemporary notion of greatness. Leadership is found in becoming the servant of all. Power is discovered in submission. The foremost symbol of this radical servanthood is the cross. “He [Jesus] humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8, RSV). But note this: Christ not only died a “cross-death,” he lived a “cross-life.”

Richard J. Foster, Seeking the Kingdom, HarperOne.

Leadership in the Forge

In 1992, my wife and I traveled to Prague, Czech Republic. One day, near the end of our trip, Beth and I walked through Staroměstské náměstí, a large central square. There in the middle of the square were two artisans who were drawing a sizable crowd to watch them ply their craft. They took pieces of scrap iron, discards, and by first heating them until they were soft and pliable, and then held securely on the anvil, they were pummeled and pounded into a new shape. The process repeated: fire, steel, sweat; heating, holding, forming; placed, pounded, and finally, plunged into water. I watched those artisans—so physical, so purposeful, so violent with hammer and inferno, so precise and exacting. They seemed a living icon of God. For we are the raw material, scraps of hardened, resisting steel. And they, the craftsmen, are so like God in precision and purpose, using the heat of challenges, the anvil of community, and the hammer of practices to transform us from raw material into something useful and beautiful.

… What was once raw material becomes, under the hand of the smith and through the heat of the forge, a new creation that is both pure and mixed, with a new purpose but with nothing lost of its original makeup. Through an age-old process from a previous century, we find a glimpse of what must happen in our lives if we are going to be able to lead—and thrive—in leading.

Taken from Tempered Resilience: How Leaders Are Formed in the Crucible of Change by Tod E Bolsinger. Copyright (c) 2021 by Tod E Bolsinger. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com


The Mis-Leader

This reminds me of a term Dietrich Bonhoeffer used to refer to Adolf Hitler and leaders like him. He called these bad shepherds “mis-leaders.” Bonhoeffer gave a speech just two days after Hitler’s election that proved prophetic. He intimated that if a leader did not understand that his authority was derived from God, and did not use his position and power to serve the people, then “the image of the leader will pass over into the image of the mis-leader, and he will be acting in a criminal way not only towards those he leads, but also towards himself. . . .

He has to lead the individual into his own maturity.” Bonhoeffer proclaimed Hitler a mis-leader before his regime had even been fully formed. But one does not have to be a Hitler, or one of Ezekiel’s blatantly evil shepherds, to be a “mis-leader.”

Terry A. Smith, The Hospitable Leader: Create Environments Where People and Dreams Flourish. Baker Publishing Group.

Nouwen on Christian Leadership

A Christian leader is not a leader because he announces a new idea and tries to convince others of its worth; he is a leader because he faces the world with eyes full of expectation, with the expertise to take away the veil that covers its hidden potential. Christian leadership is called ministry precisely to express that in the service of others new life can be brought about. It is this service which gives eyes to see the flower breaking through the cracks in the street, ears to hear a word of forgiveness muted by hatred and hostility, and hands to feel new life under the cover of death and destruction.

 Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, The Crown Publishing Group.

The Parable of the Two Servants

In this modern day parable, Alan Fadling describes a king and his two servants. Each of the servants desires to do the will of the king, but they approach their work very differently:

One of the servants, for fear of not pleasing his master, rose early each day to hurry along to do all the things that he believed the king wanted done. He didn’t want to bother the king with questions about what that work was. Instead, he hurried from project to project from early morning until late at night. The other servant, also eager to please his master, would rise early as well, but he took a few moments to go to the king, ask him about his wishes for the day and find out just what it was he desired to be done. Only after such a consultation did this servant step into the work of his day.

…The busy servant may have gotten a lot done by the time the inquiring servant even started his work, but which of them was doing the will of the master and pleasing him? Genuine productivity is not about getting as much done for God as we can manage. It is doing the good work God actually has for us in a given day. Genuine productivity is learning that we are more than servants, that we are beloved sons and daughters invited into the good kingdom work of our heavenly Father. That being the case, how might God be inviting you to wait for his specific direction?

Taken from An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus’ Rhythms of Work and Rest by Alan Fadling Copyright (c) 2013 by Alan Fadling. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

The Shepherd’s Staff

In his excellent study of the famous Biblical passage on shepherds, (The Good Shepherd: A Thousand Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament), scholar Ken Bailey provides helpful context to “rod” and staff” mentioned in Psalm 23:

The Hebrew word here translated “rod” (shbt) has a long history. Its meanings include rod, scepter and weapon. It does not refer to a “walking stick.” Rather it is the shepherd’s primary offensive weapon for protecting the flock from enemies, be they wild animals or human thieves. The instrument itself is about two and a half feet long with a mace-like end into which heavy pieces of iron are often embedded. It becomes a formidable weapon.

…… The shepherd’s staff is not for defending the flock from any external threat, but for caring for the sheep as he leads them daily in search of food, drink, tranquility and rest. These two instruments are a pair. The first (the rod) is used to protect the flock from external threats. The second (the staff) serves to gently assist the flock in its daily grazing. The sight of these two instruments comfort the sheep.

Taken from The Good Shepherd: A Thousand-Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament by Kenneth E. Bailey, Copyright (c) 2014, pp.50, 53 by Kenneth E. Bailey. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Submission vs. Subjugation

Submission is not subjugation. Subjugation turns a person into a thing, destroys individuality, and removes all liberty. Submission makes a person become more of what God wants him to be; it brings out individuality; it gives him the freedom to accomplish all that God has for his life and ministry. Subjugation is weakness; it is the refuge of those who are afraid of maturity. Submission is strength; it is the first step toward true maturity and ministry.

Warren Wiersbe, Leadership

Tell Them About the Dream Martin!

Most of us in the United States know the famous “I have a Dream” speech Martin Luther King Jr. gave at the Lincoln Memorial as part of the 1963 March on Washington. On a sweltering, humid day in the nation’s capital, some 250,000 people came to hear King speak on the cause of civil rights and the fight for equality and justice for African Americans. What most of us don’t know is that that the “dream” part of the speech almost never happened, in fact, should not have happened. It was not a part of the prepared remarks for that day, but inspiration came in the form of a gospel singer named Mahalia Jackson.

As King inched towards the climax of his speech, he seemed to hesitate, perhaps unsure of whether his prepared remarks were as inspiring as he had hoped. At that moment, the great civil rights leader heard a voice behind him. “Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!” Mahalia Jackson shouted. At that point, Clarence Jones, one of Dr. King’s advisors leaned over to the person next to him and said, “These people out there, they don’t know it, but they’re about ready to go to church.”

The rest, as we now know, is history. Dr. King had been testing out this “dream” section of his speech at previous events, and when he took Mahalia Jackson’s advice, he put into words the longings of a generation to experience equality and justice for all. He described the power of the gospel to create reconciliation where there had previously been hostility and tension.

I love this little insight into one of the most important moments in American history, not because it lessens King’s impact and genius, but rather, enlarges it. It also speaks to the genius and boldness of Mahalia Jackson, willing, in one of the biggest moments of her life and Dr. King’s, to speak up with a great idea. How wonderful for King not to scoff or ignore her, but to  listen, pause and realize that she was right, that now it was time to tell them about the dream.

Stuart Strachan Jr. source material https://www.vox.com/2016/1/18/10785882/martin-luther-king-dream-mahalia-jackson and other articles.

Thinking Gray

In his book The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadershipformer president of the University of Southern California Steven Sample, details a critical element leaders must possess if they wish to make sound judgments:

Thinking gray is an extraordinarily uncommon characteristic which requires a good deal of effort to develop. But it is one of the most important skills which a leader can acquire.

Most people are binary and instant in their judgments; that is, they immediately categorize things as good or bad, true or false, black or white, friend or foe. A truly effective leader, however, must be able to see the shades of gray inherent in a situation in order to make wise decisions as to how to proceed. The essence of thinking gray is this: don’t form an opinion about an important matter until you’ve heard all the relevant facts.

Steven B. Sample, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002), p. 7.

Three Perspectives on Work

In 1927 Bruce Barton wrote a multi-faceted parable that is believed to be based on a true story. This story is related to the work of Sir Christopher Wren, whose design of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London is considered one of the most beautiful church buildings ever constructed. The construction was necessary because of the Great Fire of 1666, in which much of London, including the original St. Paul’s church building was destroyed:

One day, while observing the construction of the cathedral, Wren decided to question the three bricklayers. “What are you doing?” to which the bricklayer replied, “I’m a bricklayer. I’m working hard laying bricks to feed my family.” The second bricklayer answered, “I’m a builder. I’m building a wall.” But the third bricklayer, who would eventually rise in rank above all the other craftsmen, when he was asked the question, “What are you doing?” replied with a gleam in his eye, “I’m a cathedral builder. I get to play a small part in building the greatest kingdom of all, the kingdom of God.”

Original Source Unknown, Stuart Strachan Jr.

The Transfer of Energy

In physics, power is defined as the transfer of energy. In a light bulb, for example, electricity is transferred into light and heat. A 100-watt light bulb is more powerful than a 60-watt light bulb because there is more energy transferred. The same is true in leadership. It is a leader’s ability to transfer their authority to others that actually gives them their power.

Simon Sinek, What Leaders Can Learn From Mandela’s Selflessness and Sacrifice

What Did Jesus Leave to Grow?

H.G. Wells, himself an atheist, makes this point about the nature of greatness as it relates to Jesus:

More than 1900 years later…a historian like myself, who doesn’t even call himself a Christian, finds the picture centering irresistibly around the life and character of this most significant man…. The historian’s test of an individual’s greatness is ‘What did he leave to grow?’ Did he start men to thinking along fresh lines with a vigor that persisted after him? By this test Jesus stands first.

H. G. Wells: Quoted from The Greatest Men in History in Mark Link, S.J., He Is the Still Point of the Turning World., Argus Communications.

Where Does Leadership Come From?

It’s an argument that may never be fully resolved, but scientific research has shown what most of us probably already suspected: there is some truth to both perspectives. One study focused on factors that influenced what it called “leadership role occupancy,” which simply means “holding a leadership position.” The study analyzed 238 sets of identical twins (who share 100 percent of their genetic background) and compared them to 188 sets of fraternal twins (who share only 50 percent of their genetic background).

The analysis revealed that 30 percent of an individual’s leadership role occupancy could be attributed to genetic factors, and the remainder to non-shared environmental factors. In other words, nearly one-third of their leadership role could be related to traits they were born with, while over two-thirds was not. In another study, researchers also found support for the “born leader” idea, and they even went so far as to identify a specific genotype, rs4950, that was associated with leadership role occupancy.

In this study, researchers found the genetic portion of leadership role occupancy to be 24 percent. They concluded that leadership role occupancy is “the complex product of genetic and environmental influences.”

Chad Veach, Help! I Work with People: Getting Good at Influence, Leadership, and People Skills, Bethany House Publishers, 2020.

You are Your Only Tool

When a leader raises awareness of the need for change, the natural result is for stakeholders to resist that change and the loss that comes with it. When weeks go by and the secret hopes that our lives will “return to normal” don’t materialize, grumbling can turn into outright resistance.

“That hammer is heavy,” the instructor said. For my wife, Beth, and me, taking a beginning blacksmithing class, this was the moment when we started doing the actual work we had come to do—to transform a piece of steel into a tool that could be of good use.

Standing in front of the anvil with a pair of tongs and a piece of molten steel fresh from the forge, the weight of the hammer and what we were going to be doing for the next couple of hours felt significant. We were enthusiastic and ready to jump in, swinging away. But our instructor warned us that a lot of wasted effort happens when we try to force something. In reality, the process and tools do much of the work.

Besides, he said, we could pull a muscle or tire out our arms by thinking we had to add a lot of muscle to this process of heating, holding, and hammering. The malleable, heated steel on the anvil was now ready for the hammer. One swing at a time, slowly, repeatedly, over time, in a process that requires constant reheating and replacing, the steel is shaped into a tool for the task.

“Just remember,” the instructor said, “you are going to be swinging that hammer over and over again. You don’t have to swing it hard, just let it fall and let the hammer do the work.” Let the hammer do the work. Blacksmiths may be the only ancient artisans who used their craft to make their tools and then used their tools to ply their craft.

The very act of making tools is what helped them hone their craft and turned them into the smiths who then made tools for others. Leaders may be the same kind of artisans today. One of my friends who is both a pastor and a marriage and family therapist likes to say that in anything relating to the care or leadership of humans, “You are your only tool.”

As we consider what it takes for a leader to develop the tempered resilience that will enable them to withstand the challenges of a changing world, we will see how stress makes a leader when that stress is focused on a particular formational purpose. In other words, what gets hammered into a leader becomes the very attributes they will use to hew hope from despair.

Taken from Leadership for a Time of Pandemic: Practicing Resilience by Tod E. Bolsinger Copyright (c) 2020 by Tod E. Bolsinger. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com




See also Achievement, Calling, Challenges, Power

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