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.

October 27, 2013

Church Life: Pleasing Everyone is Hard to Do

I’ve never actually been in a church where the color of the carpet was an issue, but the topic stands in for a host of other topics when people are discussing superficial things they don’t like about a particular place of worship.

Still, there are some superficials which impact how effective ministry can be. For example, why is sometimes the pastor seems to really connect with people during the sermon, and other weeks when people are less responsive. It may have to do with things you don’t think about.

Sound

  • If the sound is turned up too high, people feel like they are being shouted at. It’s the live equivalent of me typing a sentence in CAPITAL LETTERS, back when people actually interacted in groups. Of course, there are some Pentecostal and Charismatic churches where the preacher’s words are amplified at rock concert volumes, but I think we have natural defenses that want to shut off any message bombarding us at high decibels.
  • If the sound is turned down too low, I believe that even if you’re hearing every single word, you’re using some mental processing capacity to strain to catch those phrases and sentences,  at the expense of being able to use that capacity to process the actual content of the words, and their applicability to your situation.

What you want is to find the sweet spot in the middle, and find a way to keep it consistent week-to-week.

Temperature

  • If the Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) system is turned up too high, people feel sticky in the summer and sleepy in the winter. If the temperature makes you feel comfy and cozy like you’re lying under a couple of blankets, you will indeed nod off.
  • If the thermostat is turned down too low, people are squirming or perhaps even needing to use the restrooms. Preservation instinct takes over, and the message processing capacity diminishes.

What you want is to find the sweet spot in the middle. Sometimes, if you’re not sure, you need to take 15 seconds to survey the audience on this one.

Lighting

  • The modern church spends a fortune on stage lighting, which includes something called “backlighting” which helps give definition to people on the platform. However, depending on where you are sitting, these lights can be shining directly into the audience seating. After the first five minutes it gets annoying and after as little as fifteen minutes you have a headache.
  • On the other hand, some churches are so dark it’s creepy. (We covered this topic in the list link a few days ago here.) Combine the absence of light with a high temperature and you have a perfect recipe for slumber once the sermon starts.

What you want is to find the sweet spot in the middle. One church I know turns up the lights for the sermon so people can follow along in their Bibles and make notes. Trouble is, in other auditorium contexts, when the lights come up it means the show is over!

So what superficials have affected worship in your past experience?

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.

July 29, 2012

A Guide to Handling Online Controversy

This is from Canadian pastor and longtime blogger Darryl Dash, where it appeared at his blog DashHouse.com under the title Field Guide for Volatile Topics. It’s a great help to fellow-bloggers, but really applies to anyone who makes their opinions known in any public forum

Inspired in part by recent events online, as well as by ministry as a church planter in a post-Christian culture:

  • Not all topics are equal. You can swing at some subjects with a big stick and nobody will care. Other topics require delicate treatment. Learn finesse.
  • If you can be misunderstood, you will be misunderstood. Expect that what you say will be taken out of context. Don’t be surprised.
  • Be aware of stereotypes. Know how people will misconstrue your position, and don’t reenforce their mistaken beliefs. If you’re Canadian, for instance, don’t talk about beavers and wear a Mountie hat. If you’re complementarian, don’t say anything that could remotely be taken as chauvinist. Some people will build straw men; be careful not to hand them straw.
  • Know that you belong to a camp. Some people hate that camp and are waiting for you to say something stupid. Speak accordingly.
  • Being a nice guy doesn’t count. Your mother, wife, kids, and dog love you; this won’t count much for those you offend.
  • Show grace to those who criticize you. They won’t always deserve it, but neither do you. Show grace anyways.
  • Apologize. Nothing will defuse the situation like an honest apology. People will know if it’s sincere or not, so don’t try to fake this one.
  • Move on. Some people will be angry with you anyways. Rest in God’s grace.

My guess is that the skill of dealing with volatile topics is going to become even more important than it is now. I’d love to hear your ideas on how we can do so.

~Darryl Dash

March 13, 2012

Thoughts on Church Life (2) – Giftedness

Filed under: Church — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:50 am

We were out shopping in a place we don’t normally visit at a time we’re usually at home.

The woman in the store thought we looked familiar.

“Don’t I know you from the Baptist Church on _________ Street?”

Establishing that there was no such church on that street, we tried to get a fix on the correct denomination, and then using the names of people who had pastored that church, determine what years she attended there. We connected with the name of one particular minister.

“He was a great orator;” she said.

I had no response to that particular comment, but inside I was thinking, ‘Really? A good orator? That’s all you walked away with, after years of sitting under his ministry?’

She then informed us where she was currently attending; a church where, I will grant you, skills at oratory probably rank fairly high.

Still, I was broken inside. The man she referenced was a spiritual leader. He was a visionary.

Yes, he brought the scriptures to life on Sunday mornings, but he was so much more than the sum of his preaching, at least in my life anyway. He was a good friend.

I felt a rather passionate response welling up, about how the work of preaching is more than just stringing rich vocabulary together eloquently, but then decided just to smile.

Guess I’m not a good orator.

September 20, 2011

When It’s Your Turn to Lead the Scripture Reading

Fortunately, this issue hasn’t been a problem in the churches we’ve attended recently, but I think it’s worth repeating this piece from September, 2009…

scripture_readingNothing strikes terror in the hearts of churchgoers like being asked to do a scripture reading. Even some progressive, non-liturgical churches are trying things in the middle of the sermon which involve having the reader seated with a live microphone to jump into the middle of the sermon to read texts as needed. (The change in voices might actually keep some from slipping into their Sunday slumber.)

Laypersons so asked to participate will often make a panic purchase of a resource with a title like, “How to Pronounce Bible Names;” only to find the pastor saying the names with completely different vowel sounds and syllable emphasis than what they read to the congregation moments earlier.

And then there’s always the critical question, “What should I wear?” This usually transcends any consideration of the words being uttered.

Talking about this on the weekend however, we decided that what is usually lacking in these moments is passion. It’s not that the participant is unsaved or involved in gross sins. Rather, they just haven’t taken the time to examine the text and draw out its key elements in spoken form.

Which is a great place to interrupt this and add, in case you missed it, the excellent comment made by Jeremy two posts back, in ‘A New Way to Meditate on Scripture’ where he redefined this as: “…like walking down a highway that you drove on every day. Longer to look, to feel, to think about.”

So let’s cut to the “how-to.” Here’s how to slow down on the highway and consider the text so you that can read it with passion.

Photocopy or hand-write the verses you have been asked to read. Then go through and place EMPHASIS on the KEY WORDS you want to draw out. You can do this with:

  • underlining
  • capital letters
  • bold-face type (or retracing handwritten words)
  • highlighting in yellow

In other words, whatever works for you; one, some or all of the above. This is what newsreaders on Top 40 radio stations would do to keep music listeners from tuning out during the newscast. Punch it out a little! Sell it! Make it sing! (Unless you’re reading from Lamentations.)

In other words, short of doing a dramatic reading — which you probably were not asked to — communicate some of the fire and intensity in the passage. Because, all scripture is God-breathed.

August 18, 2010

Wednesday Link List

This was a week for reconstructing the blogroll here.   “Oh, Oh, The Places You’ll Go” lists all the things that are NOT blogs, along with, for a limited time, a description of each one on-screen — you don’t even have to mouse hover — which for some strange reason Made Every Word Start With A Capital Letter.

The actual blogs are now found further down in a new section called “Blog Stops.”

And now on to this week:

September 29, 2009

A New Way To Read Scripture Aloud

Filed under: bible, Church — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:21 am

scripture_readingNothing strikes terror in the hearts of churchgoers like being asked to do a scripture reading.   Even some progressive, non-liturgical churches are trying things in the middle of the sermon which involve having the reader seated with a live microphone to jump into the middle of the sermon to read texts as needed.   (The change in voices might actually keep some from slipping into their Sunday slumber.)

Laypersons so asked to participate will often make a panic purchase of a resource with a title like, “How to Pronounce Bible Names;” only to find the pastor saying the names with completely different vowel sounds and syllable emphasis than what they read to the congregation moments earlier.

And then there’s always the critical question, “What should I wear?”  This usually transcends any consideration of the words being uttered.

Talking about this on the weekend however, we decided that what is usually lacking in these moments is passion.   It’s not that the participant is unsaved or involved in gross sins.   Rather, they just haven’t taken the time to examine the text and draw out its key elements in spoken form.

Which is a great place to interrupt this and add, in case you missed it, the excellent comment made by Jeremy two posts back, in ‘A New Way to Meditate on Scripture’ where he redefined this as:  “…like walking down a highway that you drove on every day.  Longer to look, to feel, to think about.”

So let’s cut to the “how-to.”   Here’s how to slow down on the highway and consider the text so you that can read it with passion.

Photocopy or hand-write the verses you have been asked to read.  Then go through and place EMPHASIS on the KEY WORDS you want to draw out.   You can do this with:

  • underlining
  • capital letters
  • bold-face type (or retracing handwritten words)
  • highlighting in yellow

In other words, whatever works for you; one, some or all of the above.   This is what newsreaders on Top 40 radio stations would do to keep music listeners from tuning out during the newscast.   Punch it out a little!   Sell it!   Make it sing!  (Unless you’re reading from Lamentations.)

In other words, short of doing a dramatic reading — which you probably were not asked to — communicate some of the fire and intensity in the passage.   Because, all scripture is God-breathed.

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