Thinking Out Loud

January 21, 2014

The Highest Form of Flattery

Filed under: blogging, writing — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:13 am

Somewhere in the last decade, there was a year or two (or maybe three) where we would download each and every fresh sermon from Rob Bell, convert them to disc, and play them back in the car on long trips.

Some of you disagree theologically with Bell on a thing or two (or maybe three) but his speaking style was unique.

And distinct.

And uniquely distinct.

I don’t know to what degree it might have been noticeable, but if I were asked to speak somewhere, I’m sure there were elements of that speaking style that crept into my own, not unlike the person who spends two weeks in London and returns to Houston with the slightest hint of an accent beginning to form.

More recent downloads at our house include Greg Boyd and Andy Stanley, but Bell’s homilies were always a mix of prose and poetry. Disagree though you might, he is always engaging to listen to. He knows how to get people talking.

It’s the same with writing. I tend to take on the style of the person I’ve been reading most recently. Frankly, if you’re an aspiring writer, or even an aspiring blogger, I can’t stress the value of reading good writers; of reading the best. Want to write better? Then read more.

Oswald J. Smith built Toronto’s Peoples Church into Canada’s first — and for a long time only — megachurch. When he was away on missionary trips, some of which encompassed months at a time, his philosophy was to always book guest speakers that he felt were better than himself.  If you’re an aspiring teacher or preacher, I can’t stress the value of listening to great speakers; of going out of your way to hear the best, especially hearing them in person.

Every Friday night, I have a ritual of catching up with the blog, Best of YouTube. I’ve noticed however that my never-diagnosed ADHD self is most reluctant to commit to videos longer than about four minutes. I tend to watch the short ones and skip the long ones, which lately have been getting much longer. My attention span doesn’t lend itself to War and Peace or a ten-part series on A&E. For that reason, I minimize my own potential to return to school and get that coveted Masters degree, nonetheless I am committed to lifelong learning. I absorb knowledge — and ideas — like a sponge. Books fill the shelves in various rooms, at times lining the stairs; my computer is literally choked with bookmarked articles; and the aforementioned sermon discs fill several spools.

Read the best.

Listen to the best.

To borrow (and misuse) a term from the HTML side of computing, I look for rich text. In computer parlance, rich text refers to text that has been ornamented through bold face, color, underlining, a change of font, use of italics, subscripts, superscripts, and enlargement.

Rich text in speaking or writing could mean something just as intricate and interesting, but I use it to refer to content that is enriched, through cross-reference, powerful illustration, authoritative delivery, passion, and thought-provoking ideas. We live in a time-starved world, so don’t settle for fluff.

And… if you find yourself parroting someone else’s style in your speech or composition that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it might be called the highest form of flattery.

January 19, 2014

ADHD Sermon Notes

Filed under: Church, Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:45 am

sermon notes The pastor preached eloquently this morning, weaving together contemporary illustrations and stories from his own life with related scriptures, the meaning of key words in the text, a fuller understanding of the context for today’s reading, a recap of the main points, and a couple of ways we can apply the lesson to everyday life.

Now, as I write this, and stop and consider further what he said, I realize I have no idea what the message was about.


ADHD or everyone? Do you sometimes see yourself in this situation?

About the image: I doubt Lauren Finley (click image to link) is ADHD, but I needed an illustration and it seemed like something someone might do if they were. On the other hand, some people function better taking notes with a built-in distraction, just as I often play Solitaire while I’m listening to Andy Stanley online.

August 12, 2013

How Preaching Sounds to the Uncommitted

Filed under: Church — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:35 am

On the weekend we went on a farm tour. I think the purists among the farming community call this ‘agritourism’ or even ‘agritainment.’ The owner guided us around her property consisting entirely of one ‘crop’ a somewhat obscure herb that some reading this might never have had contact with.

As we stood in one place in the hot sun for nearly 30 minutes, and in the field for about 60 minutes overall, our guide was oblivious to any potential discomfort. She speaks well and clearly. She is obviously intelligent.

More important are two qualities: She has a passion for what she is doing. It constantly leaks from the overflow of her heart. And she knows her subject down the last detail. I can’t imagine a question she couldn’t answer.

In the church, we generally give high place to those two criteria among the people who act as our guides, particularly those who teach us at weekend services. The formula looks like this:

genuine passion + extensive knowledge = audience engagement

In most cases, the sermons you remember because you’d like to forget them (there’s a phrase!) either lacked passion (a dry monotonous delivery) or lacked substance (the speaker hadn’t studied or had no depth).

The problem was, the farm owner had both, yet in our little group of six, I’m not sure how engaged we were. One person out of the six asked several questions however; this would represent the 15% of people in our local churches that some estimate are really into what is going on and are committed to lifestyle Christianity.

Bible teaching and preaching(I should also add that both my wife and I picked up the parallel between what we were experiencing and its application to church life. As soon as we were out of earshot of the rest of the group, it’s the first thing we mentioned.)

Now, we knew going in what the subject matter was going to be. We just didn’t know how that would be presented. For nearly an hour in the hot sun, we were presented with answers to questions we weren’t asking, details only a solid aficionado of the subject would want to know.

Now I know how preaching sounds to an atheist. We weren’t dragged to this event against our will; in fact we paid an admission to be there. So there was some interest, but not in the type of things that were presented. My wife noted a couple of things that were absent in the presentation; I’ll let her explain.

If the medium is the message, is the storyteller the story? Our credibility is born out of who we are, and our storyteller told us a story that communicated nothing of herself, or any other people. She shared an expert stream of hows, of dos and don’ts, of whens and wheres and hows, of so many centimetres apart and deep and high, of percentages and techniques, of days and weeks and months and years – but no who. We were told that the plant was native to the Mediterranean area. So who brought it over here and why? We were told that there are 57 varieties of the plant, examples of each to be found in a separate plot of soil. Who created them all? One little nugget that dropped was that her family had, until a few years ago, been market gardeners (implying a varied and multi-seasonal crop). She never explained how they’d made the leap from something so practical and communal to something so esoteric and exclusive. Where did this passion come from? There was no history, no personality. No identity.

So basically, all of our passion and all of our knowledge does not guarantee that our presentation will become infectious, or frankly, that anyone is listening at all.

I know that some people read blogs who are very distrustful of churches that try to make the gospel relevant. I like what someone once said on this: We need to communicate the relevance the gospel already has. I know in my own life there have been times when I was passionate and detailed about things that my hearers may have had a mild interest in, but I wasn’t addressing their felt needs.

Spiritual passion + Biblical knowledge does not necessarily result in audience receptivity, even if you’re the best orator in the world.

July 2, 2013

Where You’ve Bean

Eugene Peterson in Tell It Slant (Eerdman’s, 2008, pp 60-61)

Eugene PetersonSeveral years ago I was conducting a seminar in the interpretation of Scripture in a theological seminary. It was a graduate seminar. Our topic that day was Jesus’ parables. All the participants were experienced pastors and priests. One of the priests, Tony Byrnne, was a Jesuit missionary on sabbatical from twenty years at his post in Africa. As we discussed the Biblical parables, Father Tony told us of his experiences with his Africans who loved storytelling, who loved parables. His Jesuit order didn’t have enough priests to handle all the conversions that were taking place, and he was put in charge of recruiting lay-persons to carry out the basic teaching and diaconal work.

When he first began the work, where he would find men who were especially bright he would put them in charge of their village and sent them to Rome or Dublin or Boston or New York for training. After a couple of years they would return and take up their tasks.

But the villagers hated them and would have nothing to do with them. They called the returnee a been-to (pronounced bean-to): “He’s bean-to London, he’s bean-to Dublin, he’s bean-to New York, he’s bean-to Boston.” They hated the bean-to because he no longer told stories. He gave explanations. He taught them doctrines. He gave them directions. He drew diagrams on a chalk board. The bean-to left all his stories in the waste-baskets of the libraries and lecture halls of Europe and America. The intimacy and dignifying process of telling a parable had been sold for a mess of academic pottage. So Father Brynne told us, he quit the practice of sending the men to those storyless schools.

February 12, 2013

Bridging the Expository-Preaching Topical-Preaching Divide

preacherExpository preaching consists of working through a passage on a verse-by-verse basis. For many of you, it’s the sermon style you grew up with; for a few it might be the only Bible teaching form you know.

Topical preaching seeks to look at selected scriptures and build a picture of the Bible’s wider teaching on a particular subject or issue. It grew in popularity when the seeker-sensitive church movement started, and is therefore often associated with that paradigm.

Expository preaching is a necessary skill for pastors. If you can’t exegete a passage, you don’t pass homiletics or hermeneutics in Bible college or seminary.

Topical preaching is sometimes mistakenly thought of as “sermon lite.” It’s been — dare I say it? — demonized because of its association with things traditionalists don’t care for: contemporary music, casual dress, modern Bible translations, seeker-targeted services, etc.

A good speaker should be able to do both approaches, and should know when to do both.

But every once in awhile I run across an article that is waving the flag for the expository style, and therefore reiterating an implied disdain for the alternative, topical preaching; like this one last week at Arminian Today.

Now before you head for the comment button, let me say that I agree completely with all nine points in the article, because there is an engagement at a different level with the expository style.  But the rhetoric of the article is completely over-the-top; indeed there is almost a venom in the words chosen to state what is, at the end of the day, the author’s preference.

Topical preaching is more like a steady diet of fast food.  It takes great but is not good for you.  McDonald’s will make you happy and it does taste good but a steady flow of McDonald’s is not good for you.  You need healthy substance to survive.  Fast food makes one fat and lazy… A steady diet of fast food Christianity that tastes good but is not producing healthy disciples.  Fast food Christianity produces shallow, self-focused people who want their felt needs met and view God as an end to their own problems.  Lost is the holiness of God, the hatred for sin, the passion for God in prayer, the hunger for the Word of God, a zeal for evangelism, a passion to have a biblical worldview and to be as godly as one can be in a sinful world.

You can’t teach the holiness of God in a topical sermon?  A steady diet of theme-based teaching fails to produce healthy disciples? By what metrics? Where is the research on this?

Then the writer feels the need to add one more paragraph, just in case you missed it:

So why do most churches avoid expository preaching? I would answer that by saying that 1) many churches want to entertain to draw crowds which equals money and success in their view and 2) the preacher is simply spiritually lazy and will not take time to study the Word of God to teach the Word as it should be honored and taught.  In turn, topical preaching doesn’t teach the Word of God but is simply the preacher picking what he wants to say, makes his points, and then proof texts his points.  That is not teaching the Bible.  That is your teaching backed up by proof texts from the Bible.

Did you catch that second last sentence? Topical preaching “is not teaching the Bible.” Wow! That’s a rather heavy accusation to level.  Caught up in the genuine emotion and passion about this subject, the writer kept keyboarding too long.

Still, in the spirit of conciliation and peace-making, I decided to wade into this blog post’s swamp and try to post something redemptive; borrowing an idea from the music wars that have plagued many a church:

I wrote:

This may not be popular here, but I want to offer a third way.

Many years ago, as churches agonized over the “hymns versus choruses” debate, the late Robert Weber introduced the term “blended worship;” a mixture of classic and modern compositions.

I believe there is some merit in bringing that mindset to this topic. I don’t necessarily lean to either the topical or expository style of preaching, as I believe there is only good preaching and bad preaching. The problem with topical preaching is that sometimes you never get deep enough into the context of the passage to learn anything new; it tends to have a guilty-by-association link with weak or entry-level teaching. The problem with expository preaching is that you miss the beauty and majesty of how the whole of scripture fits together, how the Bible speaks to various themes, and how seemingly contrasting verses hold a particular issue in tension.

So a blended approach would involve the use of related passages, but with a particular key passage more fully exegeted. None of this approach negates any of the nine points above, but it avoids the mindset that I’ve seen exist among some who are steeped in the expository approach and seem to have a phobia about introducing cross-references or parallel passages.

Now, at risk of being guilty of the very thing that I abhor about the approach taken in the article, let me add something else:  It is far too easy for someone to get up, open their Bible to a single passage and basically ‘wing it.’ Drawing on your familiarity with the text, it is extremely easy to simply start reading verse by verse and improvise or amplify what is on the page without providing any added value.

In other words, while it’s possible for either type of preacher to get up unprepared, the topical sermon must have involved some gathering of related or parallel texts through commentaries or word studies.

So I’ll take my sermon topically, please, with a slice of exposition; and hold the personal opinions — oh wait, you already do.

The most powerful thing a pastor can say in his sermon is, “Take your Bibles and look with me please to the book of …”  And anywhere Bible pages are being turned or text is appearing onscreen, as far as I’m concerned, that’s a good thing.

March 7, 2010

Chorusology 101

As someone who has an affection for both modern worship and classical hymns, I’m a sucker for any piece on any blog — or any sermon on any podcast — that addresses the issue.   Sometime in the last week I heard or read something that I felt really charted some new territory for me.

Critics of modern worship tend to suggest that the choruses are simplistic and repetitive and dismiss them on that basis.   For them, the hymns are better because they are — and this is the phrase that always gets pulled out — “rich in theology.”

Now I do think they have a point.   If some choruses are simple it’s because by comparison some hymns are complex.   And if some choruses are repetitive it’s because some hymns, particularly ones that have no chorus of their own, add new and different lyrical phrasing with each new verse.

But what does that all mean at the end of the day?

The thing I heard this week that nailed it for me was the idea that many of the older hymns don’t just express a theme, but are developing a theme. (I seem to remember the example was the hymn, “There is a Fountain;” a lyrical analysis proves the fresh direction of each verse.)   Those hymns begin with a premise and then exploit that premise, and then move on to some kind of consequence or application of that premise?

Sound familiar?

It should because it’s not unlike the classic three-point or four-point sermons that were preached in the same time periods as those hymns were written.   Today, despite being able to absorb more complexity through visual imagery as the sermon is being spoken, we’ve tended to move toward one-point sermons.

Don’t get me wrong; I think people like Andy Stanley has moved the whole preaching genre forward by reintroducing the idea of having one idea or one thing that you really want to get across.  In a world of distraction, you want people to have one take-away that stays with them the following morning.   But I think that the same people who criticize modern worship are probably quite willing to jump all over modern preaching with the same charge:  Simplistic and repetitive.

Personally, I’d rather have one point that I can still remember the next day than a much more ornate oratory that goes in the one ear and out the other.

But I also think the idea of developing a theme is one we must not lose.   It will also improve our writing on the days we only want to make a single point, because it will teach us focus and concision, and also because trying to be a Christ follower in a modern world is equal parts doctrine, narrative illustration or expression of the doctrine, and application.

If you have an old hymnbook in the house, check out the flow from verse to verse.   Some hymns are quite different as you progress from verse to verse; even the popular “Joy to the World” only has a single verse that really speaks to the Christmas story.  But remember there are modern hymns, too.  Check out the lyrics of “In Christ Alone.”

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