Thinking Out Loud

May 20, 2016

Sermon Format Brings Diminishing Returns

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 10:30 am

 Found this at Thom Schultz’s blog Holy Soup. It’s actually an introduction to a 36-minute podcast which I hope you’ll consider checking out.

After many years in the pulpit, Steve Simms gave up preaching. He turned the floor over to his congregation. And he’s never looked back.

Every Sunday at Berry Street Worship Center in Nashville, Tennessee, the faithful gather to hear and share personally what God is doing in their lives. It’s unscripted, and often surprising. Simms says, “Every Sunday we say we’ve never seen anything like that.” And that’s the way he–and his congregation–like it.

The people of Berry Street follow the advice in 1 Corinthians 14:26: “Whenever you come together, each one has a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, another language, or an interpretation.”

Simms said, “I’ve seen people grow spiritually far more rapidly in this style than when I was preaching.”

In fact, back in his preaching days, Simms polled his congregants with general recall questions about his sermon content. “Not one person could answer the questions,” he said.

And, the old one-way communication model is a primary reason today’s people are staying away from church, according to research.

In today’s Holy Soup podcast with Steve Simms, he explains how he conducts his participatory Sunday services. And he offers troubleshooting tips for some common worries about this style of message-bringing, including how to handle long-winded individuals, theological impurity, and shy members…

Simms has discovered what others, in other fields, are finding: the monolog lecture method has diminishing returns.

Listen to the entire podcast at Holy Soup or at SoundCloud.

 

May 18, 2016

Wednesday Link List

Too Much ApologeticsBefore we begin, a reminder that Saturday we did a Weekend Link List. A big one. With links… The graphic at right was sourced in a 2013 blog post at Barenuckle Bible.

It’s been a long time since we caught up with our friends at Mainline Memorial Church in the comic For Heaven’s Sake by Mike Morgan, so we’re going for doubles:

For Heaven's Sake - Thorn in the Flesh - 4 25 2016


For Heaven's Sake - Spoke in Tongues - 5 14 2016

May 8, 2016

Churches that Post “Gone Fishing” Signs on the Front Door

Then turning to His disciples, Jesus said, “Okay guys, I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to maintain focus during this sticky weather, especially since air conditioning won’t be invented for at least another 1,900 years. So whaddya say we take at least eight weeks off, and then we’ll meet up at Bethany and start planning the fall season.”

Imagine the greatest institution the world has ever seen suddenly shutting shop. Imagine a movement so powerful that nothing can stop it dispersing its followers for an extended holiday. Imagine the Church of Jesus Christ simply not being there for the hungry, the thirsty, the needy.

That’s essentially what many of our North American churches do in June, July and August.

And it’s wrong.

It waves the white flag of surrender to the calendar, the school year, football games, and the arrival of hot and humid weather. It gives up because so-called “key leadership” decided to spend weekends at the lake. It broadcasts the message that summer ministry simply isn’t worth the bother. It says, “There’s a big game being televised so probably nobody is going to show up anyway.”

Sorry, we’re closed.

It turns out this is a topic on which I have both strong opinions and raging passion, because I’ve written about it here twice; in an April, 2008 post, Loss of Continuity, and a May, 2009 post, Summer Shutdown Mentality.

While both posts did some darkness-cursing, they both did some candle-lighting as well; first in 2008:

I have however noticed that among some megachurches the programs just become so overarching that it is impossible to curtail them in the summer months. This may actually be a major positive attribute for megachurches at a time when people are so quick to emphasize their negatives.

We did attend a local church since moving to this small town where the Sunday School ministry didn’t really miss a beat in the summer. I noted their dedication. It was like they believed in a God that doesn’t take three months off each summer.

And then in 2009:

Use the summer to invite people over to your home for informal events.

Can’t lead a Bible study? Just find a good teaching DVD and set up the machine in the living room; make some coffee and then let whatever is meant to happen next, simply happen. There are sermon DVDs from pastors you’ve heard of available as downloads online, you can purchase some from various ministry organizations, or you can buy them at Christian bookstores.

Can lead a Bible study? Don’t do anything fancy. Just pick a short Biblical book, invite people over; make the aforementioned coffee; and start in on chapter one. Don’t even suggest getting together the following week for chapter two; let those who are present suggest that. (Some may offer their home for the following week, especially if you don’t have air-conditioning!)

Counter the summer shutdown mentality with impromptu, informal events in your home this summer. And no, you don’t need your pastor’s permission; in fact, make it a non-church event by inviting some people from a different church. Or if the DVD has good outreach potential, invite some non-churched neighbors.

Just this week, I had a conversation with someone who is operating in a kind of spiritual paralysis because she thinks she needs her pastor’s permission to invite a few friends over for a faith-based discussion; that she needs her church board’s permission for a few Christian friends to pool some money to sponsor a 10-year old girl’s week at a Christian camp.

As the Nike advert says, “Just do it.” 

More recently — well, 2013 actually — David Murrow wrote about another factor: Huge structures we call megachurches are already grossly under-utilized without closing down for a week.

Most church buildings are owned debt-free. Many of these churches sit empty 160 hours a week. And they’re half-empty on Sunday.

The summer is actually a time of great loneliness and isolation for many people. Here’s the conclusion I drew in 2008:

I’m willing to bet there are stories of spiritual starvation that take place when ‘spiritual providers’ take off. I’d like to start a crusade to fight on behalf of those who are simply not looking forward to the next few months of meetings suspended until the fall.


Related: North Point takes Memorial Day Weekend and Sunday after Christmas off in 2015. Excerpt

We live at a time when people are taking an extremely casual approach to church attendance. Families with children have already sacrificed weekly continuity on the altar of getting their kids into team sports: Soccer, baseball, three-pitch, t-ball, gymnastics, swim teams, etc. What hasn’t been destroyed by athletics has been decimated by dads working weekend shifts or moms working retail Sunday openings.

These days, if you can get a family out to church 26 out of 52 Sundays, you’re doing well.

So why chop that down to only 50 Sundays? Why create even the most subtle suggestion that taking time off church is perfectly acceptable?

May 3, 2016

Car Repairs, Hats, and Propriety in Weekend Worship

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

So about three years ago, I was speaking with a couple who operate their own automotive repair business. They were telling me how their primary purpose in attending church is to worship God, but people like to use Sunday morning to discuss car problems or even book an appointment to get some work done.

Okay. In a way I totally get that. Most of the ‘fellowship’ that happens in the lobby before or after church isn’t true spiritual fellowship. It consists of talk about the hometown sports team; how the kids are doing in school, piano and soccer; and the weird weather we’ve been having this year. Not so much of, “So what’s God been showing you this week?” Or, “I gotta share this verse with you I was reading yesterday.” Or, “Anything I can pray with you about over the next few days?”

That doesn’t happen so much. Maybe more in the U.S. than in my home country of Canada. But not a whole lot.

Talking in ChurchBut what really got to me about this couple’s story is that people were requesting consultation and wanting to book appointments during the offering (okay it’s like the seventh inning stretch in baseball at some churches), during worship choruses (well, in some places it is more like a rock concert than a worship opportunity) and even during a prayer (ouch!). Remember, they weren’t standing in the aisle passing out business cards, people were coming to them.

Now, I love that worship services in western Europe and North America are slightly more casual. That necktie was choking me all those years and those shoes just plain hurt. But have we gotten too casual? Is a whole generation of church-goers emerging that has no sense of propriety; no sense of what it is supposed to mean to come into the presence of a holy God?

We got a comment on a old blog post here about guys who keep their hats on in church. Normally when I comment on a post that old, it’s spam and I’m all set to delete it. But this time…

Yes, now it is my turn. We can debate whether it is a matter of “custom” or a matter of scripture; I affirm the later. For 1900 years, the matter was clear: Women are to be veiled in church, men must not cover their heads. This is based on 1Co 11:2-16 and was understood this way – as I said – UNANIMOUSLY in ALL churches of Christ for two millennium! Now, in the WEST women took off the veil and became pastors – which is a severe discontinuation of Apostolic practice UNIQUE to the Western churches, esp. Protestants. And it is in THIS setting, that men became increasingly indifferent as well and started wearing their baseball hats to church a only couple of years ago. Also: Shorts are worn to church, and shirts are no longer tucked in – the body language became totally disconnected from the spiritual language we utter with our lips. Watch out: That’s contemporary Gnosticism! Where are these brave leaders who address misbehavior like this and put an end to it?

Now, you might just dismiss this a comment from an ultra-conservative reader, but I don’t. Not completely. That sentence, “…the body language became totally disconnected from the spiritual language we utter with our lips;” is the part that haunts me.

There’s a trend emerging, but where is that trend taking us? Some say to just relax because in a few years, the men at the bank and the real estate office will be back to suits and ties. (In our town presently, the only person who wears a suit is the funeral director.) But is a whole generation that’s known nothing but casual Sunday likely to go formal? (And don’t even get me started on parents who let their children treat communion as snack time.)

Typically, I find that people in blue collar jobs tend to dress up for church, while people in white collar jobs tend to dress down; at the same time as everybody tends to be very casual in their approach to weekend worship. Even the concept of weekend worship is a compromise which allows those who choose to have their entire Sunday free to play golf, picnic, visit family or head to the beach.

…In the meantime, I feel for this couple who owns the auto shop. When this happens to me, I feign memory loss and tell them, “I can’t remember business stuff that happens on Sunday morning, but if you write it on a piece of paper, I’ll put it in my shirt pocket and deal with it on Monday.” And I actually do try to hold back some stuff to the next day. Furthermore, my job could justify getting them the answers they want because I could argue it’s kingdom business.

The auto repair couple are trying to live their lives by a higher standard and are no doubt unimpressed by those who choose to violate their time of worship. If you were they, how would you respond to a mid-service request for brakes, steering or transmission advice or a service appointment?

May 2, 2016

This Sunday’s “Mother’s Day” is Better as “Women’s Day”

One of the things that struck me when reading Pete Wilson’s book, Plan B, was the many mentions of infertility. I remember thinking, ‘This is a big issue among people in his congregation.’ And maybe for some of you.

With Mother’s Day happening this Sunday in many parts of the world, Russell Moore has written an ever-timely article on infertility. We link to Dr. Moore quite often here, but I don’t know if we had ever committed wholesale theft of one of his blog posts before stealing this one three years ago. But it needed to be seen, and still does. You are encouraged to click through to read it.

Mother’s Day is a particularly sensitive time in many congregations, and pastors and church leaders often don’t even know it. This is true even in congregations that don’t focus the entire service around the event as if it were a feast day on the church’s liturgical calendar. Infertile women, and often their husbands, are still often grieving in the shadows.

Mothers Day and the ChurchIt is good and right to honor mothers. The Bible calls us to do so. Jesus does so with his own mother. We must recognize though that many infertile women find this day almost unbearable. This is not because these women are (necessarily) bitter or covetous or envious. The day is simply a reminder of unfulfilled longings, longings that are good.

Some pastors, commendably, mention in their sermons and prayers on this day those who want to be mothers but who have not had their prayers answered. Some recognize those who are mothers not to children, but to the rest of the congregation as they disciple spiritual daughters in the faith. This is more than a “shout-out” to those who don’t have children. It is a call to the congregation to rejoice in those who “mother” the church with wisdom, and it’s a call to the church to remember those who long desperately to hear “Mama” directed at them.

What if pastors and church leaders were to set aside a day for prayer for children for the infertile?

In too many churches ministry to infertile couples is relegated to support groups that meet in the church basement during the week, under cover of darkness. Now it’s true that infertile couples need each other. The time of prayer and counsel with people in similar circumstances can be helpful.

But this alone can contribute to the sense of isolation and even shame experienced by those hurting in this way. Moreover, if the only time one talks about infertility is in a room with those who are currently infertile, one is probably going to frame the situation in rather hopeless terms.

In fact, almost every congregation is filled with previously infertile people, including lots and lots who were told by medical professionals that they would never have children! Most of those (most of us, I should say) who fit into that category don’t really talk about it much because they simply don’t think of themselves in those terms. The baby or babies are here, and the pain of the infertility has subsided. Infertile couples need to see others who were once where they are, but who have been granted the blessing they seek.

What if, at the end of a service, the pastor called any person or couple who wanted prayer for children to come forward and then asked others in the congregation to gather around them and pray? Not every person grappling with infertility will do this publicly, and that’s all right. But many will. And even those too embarrassed to come forward will be encouraged by a church willing to pray for those hurting this way. The pastor could pray for God’s gift of children for these couples, either through biological procreation or through adoption, whichever the Lord should desire in each case.

Regardless of how you do it, remember the infertile as the world around us celebrates motherhood. The Proverbs 31 woman needs our attention, but the 1 Samuel 1 woman does too.

April 11, 2016

How Are You?

Daniel White turned off the car engine and just sat in his car for an extra 30 seconds before walking into the church. On entering the church lobby there was a rush of sound as children carrying Sunday School take-home papers ran through the lobby, a woman at a table spoke loudly selling tickets for an upcoming banquet, and people engaged in conversation while drinking coffee from the church’s new café, open five days a week besides Sunday.

Fred Smits, the director of mens ministry spied Daniel coming in and with a big smile and a firm handshake asked Daniel how he was doing.

“Fine;” Daniel replied. But Daniel was far from fine. As he said the words, he was looking at Fred and internally screaming, “Help me!” The mental scream was so loud he wondered how Fred could not hear it.

“Good to hear;” replied Fred before noticing another member of the mens group arriving through the same door.

There is better acting done in that church lobby than you’ll ever see on the great stages of London and New York. People saying things are ‘fine’ when inside they are screaming.

So what about Fred and Daniel? Is it up to people who are hurting to be more honest, or is it up to the people who ask the question to probe deeper, to spend more time beyond superficial greeting?

April 4, 2016

Not Your Parents’ CCM

I realize we ended last week with both a Thursday and Friday post about worship music, and this isn’t a worship or music blog, but today’s topic just kinda landed on the doorstep over the weekend…


 

And I heard a sound from heaven like the roar of rushing waters and like a loud peal of thunder. The sound I heard was like that of harpists playing their harps.
 Revelation 14:2 NIV

There has been much talk about what the next wave of Christian music will consist of, and in particular, what the next generation will do with the enormous catalog of modern worship songs it is being handed.

Many idealists would prefer that the next generation simply accept the status quo, and that nothing drastic changes; even though that generation greatly shook up and shattered the paradigm handed it from their parents. However, a simple study of musicology reveals that for the past thousand years (and beyond) every period in music history is a reaction to the period which preceded it.

What follows is my opinion only, but there has to come a point when millennials reject the current styles in either large measure or in some small measure. People who agree with this notion usually say something like:

  • There will be an entirely new form
  • There will be a return to the hymns
  • There will be more of a blended worship approach
  • There will be new songs, but a return of four-part harmony
  • There will be fewer vertical worships songs and more songs of testimony
  • There will be less instrumentation; a minimalist or even acapella aproach
  • There will be more interest in Episcopal or Anglican forms; or chants and Taizé
  • There will be an emphasis on preaching, and less music, so it won’t really matter
  • There will be a decline of congregational participation, and a return to performed solos, choirs, etc.
  • There will be a situation where the congregation becomes passive, and music videos are simply watched

But I think a change is already in the works; it’s been happening for a few years now and it consists of

  • A rejection of Nashville as the music agenda-setting capital of the Christian world, with the next generation church embracing a more European sound
  • A rejection of the guitar as the primary contemporary worship instrument, with worship leaders playing keyboards, especially synthesizers.

(Apologies to Third Day and Big Daddy Weave; et al.)

Hillsong Y&F - Youth RevivalI believe that nothing expresses this better than the new Hillsong Young and Free album, Youth Revival. I’ve been listening to cuts from this over and over again. It puts a smile on my face. (I’m not 100% sure, but I think it’s also the band I hear at North Point Online before and after the Sunday live service feeds.)

I realize that this opinion may not sit well with Chris Tomlin fans. I’m just sayin’ that if you have a choice between guitar lessons and piano lessons for the kids and you’re a forward-looking parent, I would go with the piano. As a keyboard player who never once got to play at a campfire, I realize the instrument has some limitations, but I think the next generation is looking for something completely different than G, C, Em, D7 or its many variations.

Hillsong Young and Free stand somewhere between Hillsong Kids and Hillsong United. I get the whole Radio Disney thing. Nonetheless, I believe they best represent the change already taking place.


 

Sadly, the three videos originally posted here have been removed from YouTube and there are no substitutes available as of May 14, 2016.

March 22, 2016

Accelerated Social Change

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:05 am

Later this week, I want to look at one or two particular effects on the church that have been brought about by the internet, or perhaps one specific aspect of it. But today, as a prequel, I want to go back in time about 50 years.

We all are aware that the internet greatly accelerated social change in the countries that had access to it. The way we shop, the way we interact, the manner in which we obtain information, how we handle our financial affairs, etc.; all these have been greatly affected.

Printing PressThe standard comparison is that we are living in a time very similar to what happened when the moveable type printing press was introduced. Mass publication of printed materials was suddenly an option, and even more so when the presses were attached to steam power.

There was however, a small ripple of accelerated social change that took place in the 1960s and the medium of choice was the music of the day which we now know as rock. If you visited in a record store in the early part of the decade, the standard categories were:

  • popular
  • folk
  • classical
  • spoken word
  • country
  • marching band
  • big band / jazz
  • sacred;

but by the end of the decade, well over half the record store’s real estate was taken up with rock. “Drums and guitars;” wasn’t so much a description of the sound as a constant complaint on the lips of those who didn’t like it.

Let it BeYou can’t write about this without mentioning The Beatles. They certainly exploded quickly on the scene and were an icon of the rock music age. Their songs are forever identified with the musical style that defined the ’60s

But how much of this would have happened anyway? If you listen to the bands that were around in the pre-Beatles age, you certainly see the trajectory where music was heading. The group’s name is, after all, a play on words on the emerging “beat music” which was being played in clubs in both Europe and North America.

But in the wake of The Beatles, social change happened, and it happened fast:

1966 — Men for the first time in recent history started sporting long hair. It wasn’t necessarily the hair style of previous centuries, either. There was also a radical shift in fashion taking place introducing new colors, shapes, fabrics and combinations.

1967 — Psychedelic drugs in particular and drug use in general swept colleges and high schools. “Tune in, turn on, drop out;” was a motto that recognized the link between tuning in the music (on radio, the primary source for music awareness) and turning on (with both hard drugs and soft drugs).

1968 — Rock music became a unifying factor in the opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam. Protests spread throughout the U.S. “War! What is it good for?” is hauled out of the archives to this very day when America’s military finds itself involved overseas.

1969 — The Summer of Love. The Woodstock Festival and others like it introduced a sexual liberation such as had never been seen in the U.S. The musical Hair, launched a year earlier, summed up all the various things listed here (drugs, nudity, pacifism and of course hair itself) in a single production.

My point is that in terms of societal change, the 1960s were basically two decades for the price of one. In other words, change that might have come about over a 20-year period happened in seven years (if you track the Beatles back to 1963) instead.

beatles-cover-lifeWhy did this happen? Music!

Again, all this serves as introduction to an article coming later this week. I want to argue that the same thing has happened to the church, not because of music but because of the internet. By this I don’t mean church websites or live streaming of services, any more than The Beatles’ influence is limited to the playback conversion from vinyl to eight-track tapes. Rather, I want to make the case that a number of things happened in the same quick succession as we saw in the larger culture in the four years from 1966 to 1969.

I may not have the years so exact, but I think you’ll see that also similar to those years, the accelerated ecclesiastic change in the church brought about by the internet has come to a screeching halt.

Weigh in! If you have a comment that you would like to see form a part of the next article, feel free to email or leave it here.

 

March 21, 2016

With Every Head Bowed, and Every Eye Closed

Filed under: Christianity, Church, evangelism — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:23 am

altar-call-first-baptist-church-hammond

Yesterday morning in church I had a flashback to the church of my childhood, and a part of growing up Evangelical which was common to some readers here and possibly quite foreign to others of you.

Our pastor’s message today ended with an emphasis on repentance, and he asked people who needed to make repentance in their lives a priority to raise their hands.

Or something like that. Apparently I was having multiple flashbacks at that point, and missed the exact way he worded it.

Anyway, people raised their hands, and given the theme of the message, I debated about whether or not raise mine. We can all use a little contrition, right? I blinked my eyes open for a split second and noted that a large percentage of people were responding. But something held me back…

…You see, in my childhood church, every Sunday night service was an evangelistic meeting. Almost every service ended with the singing of Just As I Am — the same “invitation hymn” the Billy Graham Crusade choirs would end with — and an opportunity to “come forward” for prayer. It was the part of the service known as the “altar call” even though we didn’t have an altar as such.

Personal workers would then escort the people who “went forward” to the chapel, a room furnished with the pews and stained glass windows from the old building and which, for reasons unknown, I always found rather scary! Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that the church was built in the 1960s and everything was bright fluorescent lighting on off-white walls except for the chapel which was incandescents on wooden pews and wood panel walls. A dark place in which to see the light.

But before that happened, and before people went to the front of the church, and before the singing of the song, the pastor would ask people to raise their hand if they wished to be “included in the closing prayer.” This was the direct response to the message of the evening, and throughout the auditorium people would slip up a hand which he would acknowledge by saying, “I see that hand.” And again and again, “I see that hand.”

However, if you raised your hand, the personal workers, who were stationed throughout the crowd but mostly at the back would triangulate your location and then, minutes later, on the first words of “Just as I am, without one plea,” if you didn’t immediately step out into the aisle to “go forward,” they would swoop in like hawks and offer to go to the front with you. They were heading in that direction anyway, and wanting to get other riders to hop on the bus. (Mixed metaphor, I know.)

I made this mistake once as a preteen. My father, seeing that I was terrified of going forward told the personal worker that, “We’ll deal with this with him at home.” Whew! That was a close one!

So the lesson was learned rather quickly that if you didn’t raise your hand, you didn’t have to face an invitation to go forward for prayer and then be escorted to the Chapel House of Horrors…

…Which is why this morning I experienced that moment of hesitation. I didn’t want to get taken to the dark room, I guess; even though we don’t have one.

I guess I really do need to do a lot of repentance.


The image is of an altar call at First Baptist Church in Hammond, IN; the iconic church of Dr. Jack Hyles, which we visited once when I was a kid. Source. Judging by the number of people pressing in, and the empty spaces in the pews, they got a good response.

The church of my own youth is pictured in some magazines we own somewhere, but all of the pictures online are locked up by the vultures at Getty Images.

 

March 20, 2016

Why Go To Church?

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 12:26 pm

 

Going to church

As I was driving to a worship service this morning, I heard a voice in my head asking, “Why are you going to church?”

I should explain that the voice wasn’t coming from someone with horns wearing a red suit and holding a pitchfork, but rather it was the voice of a repeated self-examination that I often do while making the ten minute drive.

I know there are various stock-in-trade answers to that question. To engage in corporate worship our creator and sustainer. To take time apart from the world and work. To honor God’s day. To fellowship with other believers. To partake of Communion. To give. To pray for those in need. To be prayed for.

Those are all good answers.

Ultimately the answer I find myself coming up with lately is:

Because it’s better than not going.

Let me say that (a) I know some will think that sounds lame, and (b) some will think that is simply an answer that is incorporating the collective aspects of the other usual answers, or the absence of experiencing those benefits. But I have to say that in my Christian life, I’ve seen the effect on people of choosing not to attend weekend services, and I’ve known in my own life the emptiness I feel during a week that didn’t start out with a gathered assembly of believers.

As you face the options of various Good Friday and Easter Sunday services in the week ahead, and consider factors like having to attend at a different hour, or facing parking congestion, or maybe just having visitors sit in your seat (!) let me suggest that the other option — staying home — is just not your best choice.

Go. Go expectantly. Ask God to meet you there. Ask what he has for you to hear. Ask him to show you someone to speak to that you can encourage.

And don’t just attend. Be all there; be all in.

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