BIO: Pastor AJ Thomas leads a 3 year old church that he planted in the heart of downtown Halifax, the largest city in Atlantic Canada. The mid-sized congregation consists primarily of well-educated professionals in health care, education, and business. The primary age range of his congregation is 18-35 years old. On a typical Sunday, Deep Water Wesleyan Church will have in attendance some very strong believers, some uncommitted but open seekers, and lots of new believers. Halifax is immersed in a very post-Christian culture that is often hostile to the church. AJ, who has been serving in pastoral ministry for 9 years, says that our job as preachers “is to make things clear not simple.”
Follow AJ on Twitter.
Lenny: You preached on a very important, often overlooked, and extremely challenging topic when you tackled this sermon on prayer and miracles. The relationship between prayer and miracles is, in my estimation, one of the hardest topics upon which to preach in a day when this topic has either been abused or diminished. Yet, the Gospel focuses quite often on this topic. Why would you dare to tackle the relationship between prayer and miracles? Where did the need for this sermon come from? What was going on in you, in the church, and in the community that raised the issue of praying for miracles?
AJ: I wish I had a great story to tell here but I don’t. Truth is, I decided to preach through the miracles in John and this was on the list. I’m tempted to say there was nothing going on in our community that raised this issue but I don’t know that. I tend to just preach on what the Holy Spirit or the text (if I’m preaching through a book or section) lay out for me and trust God to make it relevant. That said, anyone who has been walking with Jesus very long would know what it is to pray for something and not see the answer come right away.
Lenny: This sermon contained both obvious relevance and profound theology. The mistaken assumption of too many preachers is that the sermon cannot be both theologically rich and extremely relevant. Your sermon maintained both. How did you do it?
AJ: I think that is ultimately a theological/philosophical issue. If you don’t believe theology is relevant then you need to find a new line of work. If you go into the study of a passage with the assumption that what is being said here theologically has significant implications for our daily lives then it can’t help but come out in your preaching. Practically speaking, I try to constantly question myself when I’m preparing. Prepare like you are in a conversation with a huge skeptic or a cynic. I’m both, so that part comes fairly easy. When you make a theological statement, answer the “so what” question. Why does this truth matter? If you can’t answer it quickly and easily, they won’t be able to answer it at all. On the other hand, when you make some sort of practical assertion you have to answer the “why” question. Why should I do that? What is the truth that makes that the right thing to do? Don’t just prepare something to say, prepare something you can defend against rigorous questioning because whether you hear them or not the questions are being asked.
Lenny: You kept stressing the importance of persisting in prayer. To be honest, I wondered if maybe people were being set-up for disappointment. Would listeners conclude, “as long as I persist in prayer there will be a pot of gold at the end of my prayer rainbow”? However, toward the end of your sermon you talked about how persistent prayer actually begins to align our prayers with the will of God. In other words, I think you were suggesting that as we persist in prayer God often modifies what we are praying for? Why did you feel the pastoral need to include this caveat in your sermon?
AJ: First and foremost I just wanted them to hear the truth. That’s what the passage points to and that’s what reality bears out. Secondly, I want people to see a bigger view of their spiritual life than the current crisis. When we pray we are usually asking God to do something specific and immediate; He is listening but He is also playing the long game and forming us into the image of His Son. And, thirdly, I absolutely abhor the prosperity heresy with it’s notion that faith is about how we manipulate God and I wanted to make it clear that if change needs to happen it’s in us not in God.
Lenny: There were several things I really appreciated about your sermon, but the element I most appreciated was your use of a mantra that, it seems, really captured the thrust of your sermon. You repeated the mantra, “hold tightly to the request, but loosely to the process.” That sentence made your sermon clear and memorable. When did that mantra surface in the development of your sermon? Do you typically insert a profound and memorable mantra like this one in your sermons?
AJ: My sermon prep is a pretty messy process so I can’t really say for sure where that statement came together, but I’m guessing somewhere towards the middle. I love to give people a central statement like that and spend 45 minutes packing all the meaning I can into it because I think they can take it with them. I try to do it as often as I can, but I don’t always get there and some messages just don’t lend themselves as well to that sort of thing. However, I think it’s a great strategy when you can pull it off.
Lenny: You used three stories about couples who struggled to conceive children. Your aim was to highlight how God used a different process in response to the prayers of each couple. Why did you decide to focus your illustration space on the issue of couples wanting children?
AJ: The same reason you pick any illustration – it was the best one I had. It is very relevant to our congregation since we have many young couples who are at the “baby-having” stage. One of the couples I mentioned had shared their story on Sunday morning a few months earlier, so that created some continuity. The biggest thing was that it gave me a way to show three different processes for the same request. I thought this highlighted the idea better than three different requests with three different processes.
Lenny: How did you invite people to respond to the sermon? Although the audio didn’t capture the response, I’m wondering if you had a prayer time at the end. Did you actually invite people, right there on the spot, to persist in praying for the thing they were tempted to quit praying for?
AJ: If memory serves me correctly, we had people stand and I prayed for them. Then, I encouraged them to take some time during the worship (we do more music after the sermon than before) to pray about whatever that thing is.