I’ve often been asked to help laymen in our churches to prepare devotional messages for civic clubs, work, or even for Sunday school classes. I have worked with staff ministers to help create meaningful small group studies for groups within the churches that I’ve served. So, whether a minister seeking to equip others for small group Bible studies, or a member of the church wanting to prepare a devotional for a club or her own small group, I believe there is a need for the thoughts that follow.
So, I have tried to demonstrate preparing a devotional by, well, preparing a devotional. In my example today, have gone to a particular date, with a specific topic in mind (leadership), selected a passage, and walked through the construction of the devotional. I trust this paper will be useful to you in some way. We pray that God will receive all glory, using this instruction for the greater good, and that, in some way, by Christ’s power, souls will be saved, and lives transformed through the eternal Word of God.
Our lesson uses the following devotion and scripture: “Listen, Learn, Love: 3 Lessons on Leadership, God’s Way,” from Psalm 119:1-24”
The several steps in preparing a small group Bible study or devotional for your gathering includes: the selection of a text, questioning the text, and these steps guide you to the exegesis of the text and the exposition of the text. More on that last two goals shortly.
Selection of the Sacred Text
Unless you were assigned a text, you will need to find a text from which we speak. You can go about that by beginning with the topic and moving to the scripture index under that topic, for example, in any number of sources. There are many websites that list, “What the Bible Says about Grief,” and so forth. I want to challenge you to move beyond that approach. I advocate the consultation of a daily lectionary. In this way, I deal with the text that are before me. There is usually an Old Testament text, a Psalm, Epistle, and a Gospel reading. I commend this approach because one is forced to be confronted by God’s Word, rather than conveniently served up a selection. This requires one to ask questions of the text and allow God’s word to direct the reader’s thoughts rather than bringing a topic to the text. Now, having said that, there is nothing wrong with beginning with a topic and finding that text. I am not knocking that! Any pathway to the goldmine is a good one, as long as it leads you to the treasure! Hopefully, I am giving you one more way to go about preparing a devotional. I do admit that it is my preferred way. I have never lacked for direction from God using the scriptures of the day from a given lectionary. For this study, I am using the ESV Daily Lectionary (a very fine lectionary that combines both my preferred translation, the English Standard Version of the Holy Bible, with a lectionary crafted from the 1928 American Book of Common Prayer). The daily reading for this coming Wednesday, August 29, 2018, includes Psalm 119:1-24. I might select all of the text or a few verses. For this example, let’s select the following verses:
9 How can a young man keep his way pure?
By guarding it according to our word.
10 With my whole heart I seek you;
let me not wander from your commandments!
11 I have stored up your word in my heart,
that I might not sin against you.
12 Blessed are you, O Lord;
teach me your statutes!
13 With my lips I declare
all the rules of your mouth.
14 In the way of your testimonies I delight
as much as in all riches.
15 I will meditate on your precepts
and fix my eyes on your ways.
16 I will delight in your statutes;
I will not forget your word.
The title of this devotional will be, “Lessons for Leaders.” If you must “name” your devotional, for need of, e.g., printing a program, don’t do so until you ave walked the the steps of preparation. The “title” of your devotional will emerge out of the transition from the “Expository Vision” to the division of your Argument (i.e, the “points” of your teaching). So, more on that as we move forward!
So, the questions for the text are shaped with the leader in mind (or whoever your audience is, or whatever your occasion; or, you can begin as a preacher must begin, with an open question void of eisegesis (presumptions, agendas, biases); the thing is, you want are applying God’s Word to those before you; so begin with the Scripture, and ask questions of the holy Text, to find out what God was saying when it was written, and what He is, thus, saying today to those before you).
1. Questioning the Text: Humbling Yourself before the Word of God
Augustine reminded us that before we can be preachers of the Word we must be we hearers of the Word. No one can instruct another in the Words of Christ before, first, sitting at the feet of the Master.
I feel that I must inject a needed word about this critical step. To question the text is not to question God. It is to discern the intent of the Holy Spirit in the passage for the sake of God’s people (and the mission of God in the world today). We must approach the word of the Lord and great humility. The reason that we question the text is often that we bring our own biases and presumptions with us. This will always distort the meaning of God’s word. Come to the text with all of your questions. Even imagine the questions of those who hear you. Is there a particularly difficult passage nested within the larger context? Certainly, difficult text should never be ignored. While you do not need to have a seminar within your devotional about all of the schools of thought about the “hard saying,” or controversial passage, you merely mentioned that “this is a difficult passage that has had several interpretations and is worthy of its own study.” Then, after acknowledging the difficult text, move to the greater message of the passage you are seeking to unfold. Mostly, difficult texts are nested within a larger context that is dealing with a larger subject. So, bring your questions to the text.
The whole of the work that follows is part of “expositing” the Biblical text. This is the prayerful, careful and humble work of “drawing forth” the propositional truth (thus, “exposit”) of the Word of the Lord for today. I said, “prayerful,” for you must go about this work with prayer. Pray the text. Pray it back to the Lord. Plead with Him to show you His Word for those to whom you will minister. I say “humble” for humility is the necessary posture of a lesser subject coming before a greater Being. This is God’s Word. You and I are mere mortals. We must have the power of the Holy Spirit to discern His Word. In a real way, the process that is going on here is that the Spirit who dwells in you must “recognize” Himself in the Word He has breathed forth (2 Timothy 3:16).
Some questions of the text include (but are not limited to)
1. What is the presenting issue in this text?
a. A subsidiary question is, “What is the intent of the human author here?” “What is the discerned intent of the Holy Spirit in this passage?”
2. What is the saving response to the presenting issue (You are building on each question; the questions are not in isolation but form a building block of answers that are providing you a statement of testimony)?
3. Whom do I see? Where is Christ in this? (Consider the whole redemptive plan of God and ask yourself, “Where are we on the ‘redemptive plan historical flow’ of history?)
a. Most often, after you determine the “presenting issue” of the text, you will begin to see the Biblical answer to address that issue; this is the “expository vision” of the text. The vision always lifts the burden.
4. What does this say to me? (Write down your answer; keep writing it until you have a complete sentence)
5. What does this say to us? (Again)
6. What does life look like if we follow the answers in this portion of God’s Word?
The force of these questions will help you to arrive at the crucial step in your preparation:
2. Locating the Meaning of the Text: Exegesis and Exposition of the Word of God
1. Isolate the presenting issue that the divinely-inspired author is addressing.
a. Then state it.
b. And personalize it.
2. Draw forth (“exposit”) the vision of hope and healing and salvation from the text.
a. State this as it is happening in the text. You must establish the Biblical truth (the “exegetical truth”) before you can move to the expository truth. Without the Biblical truth clearly stated, anything said afterward is “unbelievable.”
3. Next, bring out the “universal truth of God’s Revealed Word” for our time, our lives.
a. Write it out as an “A/B” construction. Here is an example:
i. As every believer must face (A) (the presenting issue) in our lives, so (B) God gives us (the “expository vision”).
b. I teach our preaching students in seminary to write out this “proposition” or “main idea” or “Big Idea” or (as I call it) “Expository Vision” until they have a clear, cogent, concise, statement that can fit on a “Post-it Note.”
So, here are the steps applied to Psalm 119:9-16.
1. What problem or presenting issue is the text addressing in the lives of leaders? Trying to single out one great issue or problem that the author is it dressing in the sacred text.
Since it was written by King David, it is ostensibly concerned with leadership. David is focusing on temptations that come to young men. He is concerned that young man can commit certain sends that will leave a woundedness or a limp for the rest of their lives. The king is giving council to young men on how to prepare for a life of leader ship.
2. How can we best state that problem or presenting issue?
Perhaps, we might say,
“In every season of life, leaders face temptations that, if yielded to, can derail them from their potential and usefulness both in business and in the kingdom of God.”
3. What does the text say about this problem or presenting issue?
“The Psalmist provides guidance on how young men can keep their way from falling in to sans the cripple them for the rest of their lives.”
4. What does this say to leaders — to us — this morning?
“God has given us lessons for leaders from Psalm 119 that can lead to faithfulness and effectiveness.”
5. A transition question could be: what lessons do we see here?
The answer provides the “argument” or a teaching/devotional/Bible study points with transitional statements. For example,
“We see three essential sign post to direct leaders to faithfulness and effectiveness.”
[In the above transitional sentence, the phrase “sign post“ represents the “keywords“ that will tether each of the headings or “points“ together.]
Arranging the Text: Teaching the Truth of God’s Word
Then you move in to the teaching. Thus, you might say,
[ At this point I will just proceed with a devotional on “Listen, Learn, and Love: A Biblical Guide to Leadership God’s Way.”]
“The first sign post [Note the use of this keyword in the transition.] in Psalm 119 that we see is this:
1. Faithful and effective leaders listen.
David asked, “How can a young man keep his way pure” (verse 9)?
Leadership is, of course, having such influence over others, either by relationship or authority, that others follow. would you rather have people follow you out of authority or out of relationship? I suppose if you are a general you might ask authority. Yet, before D-Day, June 6, 1944, General Dwight David Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Atlantic, went down to be with the troops. He is seen in one famous photograph mingling with enlisted men of the 101st airborne division, the “Screaming Eagles.” The thousands of American, British, Canadian, and commonwealth nations that storm the beaches of Normandy were following them and they believed in. Where are they following out of authority? Or out of respect, honor, and, in a word, relationship?
David was such a leader. He was responsible for a whole nation of other leaders. As he gives direction to young men, he demonstrates something that he does repeatedly: David talks to himself. In fact, David asks questions of his soul. We see this for instance in Psalm 42, “oh my so why are you disquieted within me? “Even in a time when he is feeling down he takes his feelings to the Lord.
Good leaders talk to themselves. Taken the wrong way, you may want to put those kinds of leaders in strait jackets and lead them away! But of course, what is really meant here is that a leader is introspective in the most spiritually healthy way. “What are the traps before me? “Lord, is my leadership about serving others or promoting myself?“ There so many other questions that we can ask of ourselves. The Bible is saying that bringing our lives to the bar of God’s law is a good and healthy thing. It is good for leaders to step back, go to the Lord, as Jesus did when he retreated to the mountains of the sea, and ask the Lord, “Father, who am I doing today? How can I serve you and others better? “
A good leader lessons: he listens for signs of trouble; he listens for voices of opportunity; he listens to others; but most importantly he listens to God. Isn’t that the kind of leader you want to follow? And isn’t that the kind of leader you want to be?
Before leaders talk, leaders listen. There is a second signpost that guides us as leaders from this passage.
2. Faithful and effective leaders learn.
We learn more about David’s leadership principles:
“With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart” verses 10-11).
David moves from listening to God to learning from what Garn has to say. He says that he does so “with my whole heart.” The monarch of Israel is absolutely focused and passionate about learning the Lord’s ways that he might apply God’s word to his life. As a king and a leader of leaders nothing could be more vital than learning. And there is no greater place to learn then at the feet of the Master.
In the Gospels, we observe Jesus and his disciples in a sort of classroom. It is definitely “on the job training,” but a continuing classroom in which the Lord Jesus is teaching His disciples about the truths of God and life in the Kingdom of God. One of the most interesting things to note is that the disciples were not merely learning about theological systems (as important as systematic theology is to understand the sweeping narrative of the Kingdom of God), they were learning about God (which is, of course, “theology” proper) and they were learning about themselves. They were absorbing the effervescent vivacity of the One who was speaking to them, the One that they called “Teacher.”
We also see the David will need to store the word of God in his heart. The heart is a metaphoric warehouse, filled with an amazing assortment of deeply personal and often mysterious items, picked up along the pathway of our lives, often without knowing it: jealousies, old bruises, roots of bitterness, memories of birthday parties, boot-camp, a lie that you told as a child, and so many diverse things. What these storage bends of material all have in common is that an event was coupled with an emotion—sadness, fear, happiness, love—and that fusion of information and emotion creates long-term memory. Long-term memories are “stored.” Some of us “hoard” hurtful or even poisonous things that we need to release. We need to clean that warehouse out. But, because of the power of the fusion of emotion and data, that is not easily done. Jesus taught that if something bad is removed, something worse will seek to fill the vacuum. What God desires for you is to replace the painful items stored away with His Word. And the only way that His Word is properly stored is with an emotional interaction with the Word of God. That is bound to happen if you begin your time of learning the Bible while praying, “Father, show me Your will in Your Word. Lord, fill me with the truth that sets me free.” God will answer that prayer. And the prayerful dialogue between you and the Lord, through the power of the Holy Spirit, will “store” that Word in your heart. I am not talking about mere memorization of a Bible verse. I am saying that you must be existentially engaged with the living Word of God. That may mean memorization as a consequence of the deeper divine moment of God’s touch. This is how we store up God’s Word in our hearts. And the thing is: God’s Word is alive. When His Word is “in the warehouse” of your soul, it will grow, nurture, and bring medicinal healing to other parts of your soul. It is like implanting a slow-release medicine that kills the bad, destroys the painful, and soothes the soft tissue of the soul, bringing healing; to painful memories, to abusive relationships, to broken dreams, and even to trauma.
The question of keeping oneself from sin is answered in learning and storing that learning up — not just in the head — but in the heart.
We have asked the question how are you listening? The question then you must be, “Are you learning?”
I used to serve as the president and chancellor of a graduate school of theology. I really enjoyed the graduation ceremonies. I loved seeing their families and friends gathering to celebrate what is really a remarkable accomplishment. But I really enjoyed seeing the graduates personally. As I looked at each one of them coming to me, reaching out their hand to shake nine and receive their degree, I thought to myself, “Now, here is another wonderful story of God‘s grace right before me!“ And I often handed a degree to a new fledgling pastor or missionary he would whisper to them “remember, this is merely a license to learn.”
Everything we have learned prior to this day gives us a license to learn more for tomorrow. And not just to learn something, but to learn something and give it away to someone else. All of our experiences and all of her education, courses, classes, what we learned at our mother’s knee, what we learn from our father’s workshop, all converge into our hearts. We remember them. We cherish them. That is the way it is with God’s Word.
Faithful and effective leaders not only listen. Leaders learn.
Now, if all we did was “listen and learn” we would just be like a giant-jowl squirrel in the autumn: we would be accumulating acorns for our own winter stash. But that is not why leaders listen and learn. Leaders listen and learn so that they can become the people God wants them to be and then to do something else (or we should say “to become someone else“):
3. Leaders love.
The word “love” is not used in this particular part of Psalm 119. In other places, David says, straightaway, “Lord, I love thy law” (Psalm 119:97). But here, he uses the word “delight.” The word is very similar to love. To delight is to have one’s heart and entire person filled with joy, consumed with blessedness, with soulful satisfaction in the object of one’s passion. In David’s case, the delight was for the Lord himself and his word. Why? Because as he delighted himself in God and his word, this “joyful love”—delight— brought about an anointing over David. This anointing protected him. This anointing seals in the wisdom of God into the heart of the leader named David.
Leaders listen. Leaders learn. And now we see that leaders love.
Do you know what is interesting about all of this? Everything that we read in the Text is about leadership taking place “below the waterline.” In other words, these leadership lessons are dealing with the leader’s innermost being. These lessons are dealing with the leader’s relationship with God.
These lessons are dealing with the leader’s assessment of “self” before God.
Who is the greatest leader in your life? Perhaps it was your father or your mother. Perhaps it was a friend. Maybe it was a coach. Perhaps it was a high school teacher or a college professor. Maybe it is someone here. But one thing is for sure: our best leaders — by definition that means leaders who are faithful and effective — are leaders who listen learn, and love.
What if that leader described in this passage was you? For what others do not see below the waterline they experience when the ship is underway. If there has been no listening, no learning, and no love, you can be sure that the only people following them to those who must follow them by virtue of rule or authority. And sometimes that is OK. Little how much better it would be if leaders lead by relationship, not just authority. Come to think of it, there was One who had all of the authority in the universe. But he chose to lead my love.
What kind of leader will you be today? The answer to that question is altogether related to this question: what kind of follower are you?”
In the name of the Father and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Other Important Issues
* Questions. I have focused on the composition of the study, not on small group leader dynamics. That, really, is another lesson. Allow me, then, to just add a word on the topic. Your questions should be carefully placed accoding to the venue. If you are in a home Bible study meeting, you could ask the questions after each major “movement” in the study. For example, you would ask a question for group discussion after the introduction, then, after each “point” in the presentation. If you are at a more public event, and questions are expected, and group discussion is desired, you would wait until you come to the conclusion. In this example, the devotional is a “Bible message” with response rather than a discussion.
As to how to pose questions, the answer is altogether related to reinforcing God’s Word and applying it to the lives of those before you (with you). Avoid questions that “re-adjudicate” the prayerful, quiet, solemn journey of inquiring into the presenting issue and the expository vision. It is not that you are infallible! It is rather that your work must now be applied. You are not asking questions of the text (of God) but asking questions of people. Therefore, for each major movement of the text, you ask how this relates to those before you. “What does this mean for your life as a mother? What does this mean for us as leaders? What does this first point of the message say to those in school? What hope does this convey to one with cancer? How do we make this work in our busy lives?”
* Time. Ask someone who is responsible for the venue. Ask your pastor, your boss, the chairman of the Rotary Club, etc. Then, stay UNDER that time. Remember, that if you have questions, you must consider those within the total time allotment. This matter of time is quite important. It is not the case that God’s Word doesn’t deserve ALL of our time. It is that God has given us so much time. We are to be wise, to redeem the time. I have never heard of a mob of angry parishioners gathering outside of the door of the manse or vicarage demanding that the pastor “cease from being on-time!” I have, I am ashamed to say, experienced something akin to this (not that badly, I must say) revolt for “going over” time. I used to have one lady come to the front door and if I had gone past twelve o’ clock noon, she would just stomp her right foot. Her heel hitting the concrete of the portico of the church building announced my crime if not also her verdict! However I might differ with this lady’s expression, I cannot object to her lesson. And, to her credit, that heel stomping down is still echoing in my mind! So, it worked! But I don’t want any stomping going on with you.
* Leading a group. Let me say once more, the intent of this lesson does not include group dynamics. Now, this is an important topic. In fact, if you are in a small group, the lack of pastoral (small “p”) oversight by the leader can lead to a failure to communicate. I will simply say that the topic of small group leadership deserves great attention. Here are superficial responses:
1. The Bible study leader does not have to be the small group leader.
2. Small group leaders must facilitate, not teach, once they are in that role.
3. Small groups are often composed of those who are quick to respond and those who are somewhat hesitant. Do not encourage the former and do not try to change the latter. Ask the question that leads to application.
4. Do not make your small group a Biblical quiz game show. Don’t return to the exegetical study.
a. There is a caveat to this. Sometimes the focus of a Bible study is a sort of “group encounter” of finding the expository vision of a passage. In that case, refer to the main questions taught earlier.
Remember, the binding to all of your preparation is prayer in the Holy Spirit. It is not just that prayer opens God’s Word to you, the teacher, but most importantly, prayer opens you to God‘s Word. If that happens, you will never lack for a lesson.