Thinking Out Loud

March 3, 2020

What’s Your Bible Memory Score?

Of all the major religions in the world, Christians are least acquainted with their own scriptures.

A faith community that does not impart its sacred writings to its young people is one generation away from extinction.

We’ve been surveyed to death lately. Barna, Gallup, Pew and major media outlets have a sudden interest in Christians because they feel there’s a story here, and the story they think they’re seeing is that Christianity is sinking faster than the Titanic.

While the astute know that isn’t true — a recently linked graphic is helpful — I wonder what the comparative stats would look like in terms of our knowledge of and our ability to recite major passages from our faith’s sacred book.

The problem is that gathering data on this would make for some complicated metrics. What would you include? That’s where I want to take this today. Here are some passages I think everyone should know… by heart. I’m taking John 3:16 as a given and I’m more focused on passages than individual verses such as in this list. I know some readers will want to add their own. How well do you fare against this list?

[ ] The Lord’s Prayer – Over a certain age and you probably had to recite it elementary school. And every Roman Catholic can tick this box, with or without “For Thine is the kingdom…”

[ ] Psalm 23 – Beloved for centuries and rich in imagery, I can do this one in two very different translations. If you think you know it, try right now.

[ ] The Ten Commandments – There actually are recent metrics for this one and I’m told some of us didn’t do very well.

[ ] John 14: 1-6 – “Let not your heart be troubled…” The promise of eternal life.

[ ] various “Romans Road” scriptures – Essential if you’ve ever taken a ‘soul-winning’ course, these would vary but must include 3:23 (“For all have sinned”) and 6:23 (“The wages of sin.”)

[ ] The Apostles/Nicene Creed – No, they are not in the Bible, but I toss it in here in case any of the above-named research people are actually reading this. Would be interesting to know the numbers.

[ ] The Fruit of the Spirit – People from previous generations would wonder, ‘How can you not know this.’ For me, compounded by the various translations, but I think I’ve got them all.

[ ] The Beatitudes – “Blessed are the meek…” In all honesty, this is one I might have trouble with.

[ ] “Think on These Things” – If you need a refresher, it’s probably on a wall at your grandmother’s house. Again, possible translation confusion, but easily memorized one way or another.

[ ] The Armor of God – I wouldn’t get this one and was told by my family it needs to be on the list. Is one of them The Laser Beam of Criticism?

[ ] Psalm 100 – Acting as stand-in for any Psalm which was ever set to music. (I’m thinking of the Maranatha classic Psalm 5; or any one of a gazillion songs based on Ps. 19.)

[ ] Psalm 1 – Wise advice.

[ ] The Philippians ‘Hymn’ – “Let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus.” There are a number of clauses in this to remember.

[ ] Proverbs 3:5-6 – “Trust in the Lord with all your heart…” Only two verses; I shared this when I was baptized and the camp where we met is named IAWAH, In All Ways Acknowledge Him.

[ ] I Cor. 13 – “Love is patient, love is kind.” My wife mentioned this — maybe she was trying to tell me something — but I don’t see this one as strongly as the others.

[ ] I John 1: 1-4 – “That which we have heard and seen…” You knew John’s Gospel had a prologue but so does this epistle.

[ ] Deuteronomy 30 – “Choose life.” This a long passage, but if you’re committed to memorize some of it, you’d want to start at verse 15 and continue to the end of the chapter.

How would you do?

What would you add?

December 4, 2018

Mark Clark on the State of Online Discourse Among Christians

Mark Clark is the pastor of Village Church in Vancouver, Canada and is the author of The Problem of God, which we reviewed here in September, 2017. Yesterday evening he posted a thread on Twitter that probably few of you would happen to see.

Increasingly, Twitter is becoming a long-form medium, but experience teaches me that many may not bother to click through to see an entire series of posts. So, as we did with a Skye Jethani thread around the same time last year, I’m going to take the liberty of sharing it here. (A few things are softly edited because there’s no character limit.)

December 3, 2018

Christian: Reformed or Charismatic, left or right, get out of your own echo-chamber. Your naive, dogmatic, tribal and simplistic ideological ideas are painful to read over and over again. Straw men arguments are not respected. Dig deeper. Let’s work together around ACTUAL data.

No, pragmatics aren’t the enemy! No, good doctrine isn’t the enemy. No, passionate preaching is not empty. No, doctrinal preaching isn’t always boring.

No, that successful pastor in the States with the big house and big smile probably isn’t Satan’s servant. No, the local small church pastor of 200 isn’t less qualified for ministry. No, your non-educated self isn’t more organic or Spirit-filled than “educated” pastors.

No, that church’s view on women, or governance, or preaching or whatever isn’t the enemy; Satan, sin and death is. No, video preaching isn’t wrong. No, faithfulness to expository preaching isn’t wrong. No, fighting for experiential Christianity isn’t wrong.

No, big churches using methods you don’t aren’t WRONG. No, small churches aren’t better or more godly. No, God doesn’t love big churches more.

No, unhitching from the Old Testament isn’t a good strategy. No, ones who suggest it from a missional heart aren’t necessarily heretical or false prophets.

No, ‘those’ churches aren’t always weak and flashy. No, ‘those’ churches aren’t always boring and irrelevant.

No, celebrity pastors don’t always sell out and do it for themselves. No, small church pastors aren’t always humble and selfless.

No, your self appointed group is not the standard holding Modern Christianity ‘accountable’. No, the solution is not to dissolve all accountability.

With that, Mark suddenly breaks the thread. But there are a few more postscripts which follow individually:

No, systemic racism is not over or a made up myth. It’s real. No, the ‘white man’, or men in general, are not to blame for all our problems.

No, our government leaders aren’t Messiahs. No, they aren’t completely evil and incompetent.

No, atheists aren’t always smart. No, Christians aren’t always smart.

I hope that, like me, you were able to see some people or institutions — or most importantly, some part of ourselves — in what Mark wrote. All our online activity, from scholarly insight to common ranting, won’t in itself change the world or advance the Kingdom.

I’ll concede that as it stands, what’s above is a short essay in desperate need of a closing statement or paragraph. (Update: In a note to me on Twitter, Mark explained that his phone’s battery ran out! That got me wondering if Martin Luther would have gone past #95 if he had more paper.)

So where do we go from here?

That’s up to me and you.

 

July 9, 2018

How Can You Publish and Sell a Bible You Don’t Respect?

Gift and Award Bibles, regardless of translation, have one thing in common: They’re cheaply produced (and they look it.) Fortunately, there are better options.

Thankfully, one of the elements of the Bible publishing industry that seems, from my vantage point at least, to be fading is what is called “Gift and Award Bibles.” Most of the translations on the market have a contract with a publisher to produce these combined Old-and-New Testaments which, like the name implies, are usually given out by churches to visitors or awarded to Sunday School children as prizes.

These Bibles have one factor which unites them all: They’re cheap.

And while a child of 5 or 6 may be honored to receive one, for anyone else, closer examination proves how cheaply they are made. Here’s the way it works:

  1. Newsprint is the cheapest paper available
  2. Newsprint is thicker, meaning the Bible would be “fat” if printed normally
  3. Type-size is therefore reduced to some infinitesimal font size.

So basically, we’re talking about a hard to read Bible printed on cheap paper which fades after a few years.

To be fair, a few companies have tried a better paper stock, but this only resulted in the price going up, defeating their purpose.

I have two observations about these Bibles:

  1. I think that in some respect, these are Bibles churches give away to people that they’re not always sure they’re ever going to see again.
  2. I think that, at least in how it appears in 2018, this genre was developed by people who had little respect for the Bible to begin with.

The only way to avoid giving these away without breaking the church budget was to use pew Bibles (produced in mass quantities and therefore still quite affordable) as giveaway hardcover/textbook editions. But for some reason, people like the appearance of leather when choosing a Bible for giveaway. Also, if your church uses the same Bible edition in the pews, the “gift” can look like you just went into the sanctuary/auditorium and grabbed something off the rack to give away.

The good news is that many churches can afford to do better, and many publishers are now making this possible.

♦ The NLT Bible (Tyndale) introduced some “Premium Value Slimline” editions several years back including both regular print and large print, retailing at $15.99 and $20.99 respectively. (All prices USD.)

♦ Then the NIV (Zondervan) entered the race with their “Value Thinline” editions, again in two sizes at $14.99 and $19.99, with five different covers.

♦ Next, The Message (NavPress) created three “Deluxe Gift” editions in regular print at $15.99.

♦ Then, back to NIV for a minute, Zondervan upped the game by discontinuing their existing editions and replacing them with new ones using their new, much-easier-to-read Comfort Print font. Pricing stayed the same. 

♦ Because of their expertise and success with the NIV product, HarperCollins Christian Publishing recently introduced the similar editions in NKJV, using the same Comfort Print font.

♦ Finally, I noticed this week that ESV (Crossway) is also in the game, with “Value Thinline” and “Value Compact” editions.

In all of these there is a much better paper stock and therefore a much more readable font. They look like something the church isn’t ashamed to give away, and the recipient is proud to own.

Further, for customers on a budget, there’s nothing stopping these from being purchased individually and becoming someone’s primary Bible.

 

January 15, 2018

Another Reason the Kids Aren’t at Church

Looks like nearly half of the 15 kids in this class are on their way to a ‘perfect attendance’ award; leading some Children’s Ministry directors to suspect this image is more fantasy than reality in many of our churches.

It wasn’t all that long ago that Sunday School classrooms were adorned with attendance charts with stickers applied for each Sunday kids were present. Today, those charts would be rather spotty as church attendance has suffered greatly over the past 20 years.

Back then we also were graded on a weekly point system with points applied for:

  • being present
  • being on time
  • bringing your Bible
  • bringing some money for offering
  • knowing the memory verse
  • completing the lesson in the “quarterly” (often done in the car en route to church)1
  • staying for “big church” afterwards

The Christian Education (CE) curricula of those days weren’t perfect, perhaps; but over a 3-4 year cycle we were exposed to the major body of Christian literature. Today I’m grateful to be Biblically literate2 and especially for the verses committed to memory, something harder to accomplish as you get older.

So why aren’t the kids showing up more consistently these days? In past writing and discussion I’ve always isolated two reasons:

  • Sports: Sunday morning and midweek programs for kids and teens is taking a major hit because of scheduling of competitions and practices involving soccer, baseball, swimming, gymnastics and for those of us in Canada, hockey.
  • Shift Work: Families with a single vehicle find it impossible3 to get to church if someone has to work a Sunday morning shift (or is coming off a midnight shift).

However, in a discussion last week with a CE specialist — today sometimes referred to as a KidMin specialist — I realized I was completely overlooking a significant factor.

  • Custody Arrangements: When spending the weekend with one parent, church is part of the package, but the other parent doesn’t attend, so on those weeks the kids don’t get to connect.

I asked this person how many children in her program would be affected by this, and she said, “20 percent; adding, “I have kids for whom I’ll put some extra weeks of material together for them to take home, knowing I may not see them for a few weeks.”

(Related: If you missed our 3-part series on divorce, guest-written by a youth ministry specialist, click this link.)

We don’t have room to get into this here, but statistically, if the male parent takes the kids, there is greater likelihood of the children continuing to attend church as adults.4

Either way, not only do the kids miss the benefits of the lessons presented, but they also miss the more consistent contact with their church friends, often the only Christian friends they have. By the end of my junior year in high school (Grade 11 for my Canadian readers5) my friends were largely church friends, not school or part-time-job friends. If weekend services are missed, but they get to a solid midweek program at the church, much is redeemed, but the same factors (shift work, custody, and especially, sports) play havoc with those as well.

Then there is the issue of blended families. One parent may wish to take his children or her kids to church on Sunday morning, but the other kids weren’t raised with it. Just as water seeks its lowest level, I think you know that this might easily end up with the church-raised kids wanting to opt out for whatever reason.6

With the divorce rate showing no sign of changing, this is going to continue to be a challenge facing the church at large.7 You can’t have teens leaving church who were rarely there to begin with. 

If yours is a traditional family, encourage your kids to build friendships with those whose attendance is sporadic because of any of the three issues mentioned at the top of the article and then offer to pick up these kids and drive them to church yourselves.

 


1 If the church could afford the lesson books for each kid. Our church did for awhile, but we used a 6-point evaluation system, and I’m not sure which one in the list wasn’t included. Today, the cash cow for curriculum developers is VBS, and I suspect that many churches pour a lot of their CE budget there, instead of on weekly lesson workbooks.

2 Somewhat Biblically literate, that is; please don’t challenge me to a Bible trivia contest. For some reason I do not fare well at those.

3 Even if the parents weren’t attending, getting the kids to Sunday School was easier when there was a church bus available. Today, the phrase ‘church bus’ is a bit of an anachronism.

4 Focus on the Family did this research in the 1990s, I think. Extrapoloating from this, I’ve developed a theory that it’s equally important for kids to have memories of the male parent reading. (Related, see this item re. Bill Hybels’ ‘Chair Time’ concept.)

5 The American system of ‘freshman, sophomore, junior, senior’ is now under attack because of the men in freshman. To non-Americans, junior would tend to imply the first year of high school or college.

6 In some middle school and high school communities, it isn’t cool to go to church. But churches such as North Point have created curricula that the kids and teens find to be the highlight of their week. They can’t wait to get there each weekend.

7 For more about the impact of kids being shuttled back and forth between custodial parents, check out the 2008 Abingdon title, The Switching Hour.

 

December 16, 2017

Crossword Puzzles and Sermons

I’m told that doing crosswords keeps the mind sharp. That’s certainly a valid goal. I try to do a couple of smaller ones (where I know I can finish) each week, but will also help my wife as she wrestles through the  New York Times level of difficulty.

When we first married, I would criticize her for this indulgence, as I saw them as a bit of a time-waster. “You’re not actually learning anything;” was the thrust of my argument. And it’s true. Unless you doing research to get the answers, or something reveals itself by interpolation with the letters you’ve already written, there is not much in the way of new information.

You’re using your brain to be sure. It beats watching a 2-hour marathon of The Simpsons. You’re bringing to mind things you’ve heard before and then buried deep in the recesses of your memory waiting for this particular moment to unearth them. In those terms, it’s a nice refresher. But again, it’s only when you’ve completed all the across letters in a down clue that you might say, ‘Okay, apparently the seven-letter word meaning _______ is _______.’ Or, ‘So that’s the author who wrote _______.’

Sermons are like this in many churches.

We are often reviewing and being re-presented with information with which we are already quite familiar. Maybe it’s being said in a fresh way and we can then take that particular tact when explaining something to a friend. Perhaps it’s something that needs reinforcing because we do live at the intersection of this world and the world to come and there is a constant inner war raging between our human nature and the nature that was made for higher things.

Generally, this is a good thing. The Eucharist itself is the best example of this. It doesn’t change much from week to week. But we eat, we drink, we remember, we leave differently than we entered. The hymns or worship choruses are not necessarily new; we have sung them on other occasions.

However, there is something to be said for a sermon which imparts new information. One that informs us of things we simply did not know before. Where we say, ‘I’ve never heard that explained;’ or ‘I never knew the context of that particular story;’ or my favorite, ‘How did I grow up in church and never hear that taught?’

Second best are those who help you fill in the blanks. Like the crossword puzzle where you’ve filled in all the letters but didn’t know the word before, the speaker leads you to the moment of, ‘Okay…so if all these things are true then from that we realize that…’  I would rank sermons that contain deduction a close runner up to those providing fresh information.

Personally I gravitate to teachers giving me more background (context, word study, related passages) than I had when I arrived. It doesn’t matter if the sermon is exegetical (expository) or topical, as long as there is some depth and something I can learn that helps me better understand the ways and mind of God, and then apply this to everyday life.

October 26, 2017

The Relevance of the Christian Narrative

Filed under: children, Christianity, prayer — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:04 am

Yesterday I had a conversation with a woman who teaches a pre-school class on Sundays and wants the kids to learn The Lord’s Prayer, preferably as she learned it in the King James Version. While she’s not hardline KJV-only (unless she wasn’t playing her hand) she made the case that if kids can start learning a second language by age 3, they should have no problem with a variance on the English they already know.

I am in two minds on this. To her credit:

  • Bible memorization is at an all time low in many Evangelical churches. She’s committed to a worthy goal.
  • Call God “Thee” or referring to “Thou” is a reminder that God is transcendent or “wholly other.”
  • The KJV, with its unique voice, can be quite easily committed to memory.
  • Going off a single script means kids may choose a translation randomly; each learning something different.

And yet as I pondered this I had some other concerns:

  • The obvious one is that this is a prayer guide; Jesus clearly prefaced this with the caution to avoid repeating the same prayers over and over. (That does not preclude memorizing it however. It can be a helpful prayer in times of extreme stress when other words won’t come.)
  • The flowery and ornate language of the KJV simply isn’t how people communicate in today’s world; it detaches the words from the 21st Century.
  • The formality flies in the face of the warmth of the use of the opening Abba (Daddy) in the original language.

We wrestled with this for years. My own church was an early adopter of the seeker sensitive evangelism strategy at one of our three Sunday services. Debates usually went something like this, “Do we make the gospel relevant or communicate the relevance it already has?”

Of course, a generation raised on the KJV version of The Lord’s Prayer is not the generation that’s dropping, like flies, out of church. There are dones and nones in my cohort, but they are a distinct minority. While I still insist that it’s time to move on, that version served us well.

In the end, whether she uses the KJV, The Voice or anything in between; I hope she teaches the meaning behind the prayer; I hope the kids can take ownership of what it really means to pray for the advancement of God’s Kingdom agenda and the carrying out of his will; to petition him for daily provision; to confess the areas where we have missed the mark and seek his help in avoiding them in future. To affirm at the end that it’s all his.

But more important, I hope they don’t miss the intimacy and communion that Jesus intended for his disciples when he taught them what was then a very radical approach to prayer.

 

October 2, 2017

My Sunday School Memoir, Part One

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:07 am

The church in which I spent my teenage years ultimately left me with a stronger memory of testimony than teaching. The various guest speakers who came through always had a story to tell and while I can now name-drop so many North American pastors and musicians to whom I was exposed, I think I experienced that at the expense of some Bible learning I would need to catch up on later.

In our Junior High, Sr. High and College and Career Sunday School classrooms, Christian businessmen from the congregation would drop in to share something with us; either a testimony of how they came to Christ, or how they are able to honor Christ in their workplace.

One in particular was a frequent guest. He worked in an industry that was known for its propensity to corruption. I was too young to appreciate the nuances of the term “money laundering,” but if that was that your goal, his vocation would be the career of choice.

So as a Christian, he always told us about the various ethical temptations which confronted him on a daily basis and how he always had to choose to do the right thing. “I am a Christian;” he would tell his customers, “So I can’t write up an invoice for a different amount than what you’re paying.” I think we teens and twenty-somethings were suitably impressed that he was an excellent Christian.

On reflection, many of the aspects of owning a business were lost on us kids. This weekend, his various appearances in our Sunday School rooms came to mind, and for the first time I considered the possibility he was speaking to the other teachers and not to us at all. He might have been saying, “I know what you think of people who do what I do, and I just want to tell you that I don’t compromise my Christian principles even though I’m in a usually shady line of work.”

Was he really all he said? I have no reason to believe, or even suspect otherwise. I think as Christians we have to take these things at face value. “Love,” said Paul to the Corinthians, “Believes the best.”

I just wonder why we we were exposed to this every couple of years. Did he approach the people in charge of the Sunday School and say, “I’d like to come and speak to the High School kids;” or did he simply do a great job the first time that led to other invitations? “We’ll get _______ to come; he’s really good in front of the students.”

I wonder where was the man or woman who could have come to us and said, “I was just reading something in Luke’s Gospel this week that really struck me as appropriate to the things you face at school every day, and so I asked if could come for 2-3 minutes and share it with you.” Who instead of radiating the joy of maintaining great moral standards in the face of a slimy business environment could have radiated the joy of discovering something in scripture he or she had never seen before. Who could have given us an overview of how the books of the Bible were arranged and how to interpret different genres. Who could have explained what made our church different than the ten or twelve churches we had to drive past to get there.

It was always testimony over teaching, but without a strong foundation, the problem becomes, ‘a testimony of what exactly?’

More on this in Part Two.

 

September 12, 2017

When the Color of the Carpet Actually Matters

While touring a church on a recent vacation day, I was taken to this church library where I simply had to take a picture. I love books and am a product of the power of Christian resources.

“The acquisition of Christian books is necessary for those who can use them. The mere sight of these books renders us less inclined to sin and incites us to believe more firmly in righteousness.” – Epiphanius, 4th Century

In Evangelical parlance, the phrase “the color of the carpet” is used as a euphemism for other superficial issues which can serve as a distraction to true worship and fellowship. It functions in the place of a myriad of other topics which can be divisive in the life of a Christian congregation.

I’ve always sworn I would never be a “color of the carpet” type of person. Some things are worth making a fuss over, and others should be consigned to the periphery of church concerns.

And then it happened.

At some point over the course of the summer they removed the church library and gave the contents to a local thrift store.

And I find myself seething.

So in order to justify myself, I have to be convinced that this is more than superficial; this is not about the color of the carpeting. Here’s why I am so strongly persuaded.

This was someone’s ministry in the church. This was a ministry that someone had poured their heart into for the better part of a decade, receiving an annual budgetary commitment, but little else in the way of enthusiasm. The person was away for six weeks visiting family in another part of the country. They did receive an email warning of what was to come, but little could be done at a distance of thousands of miles. This person deserved some opportunity for closure even if it was one last opportunity to view the boxed-up collection. I list this factor first because as a family, we experienced grieving the loss of a ministry, more than once, at the hands of this same church, and so we identify strongly with this particular aspect of the closure.

The library showed the value the capital-C Church has placed on writings throughout history. Though many weeks less than a dozen resources went out, its presence in the church was iconic in the truest sense of that word. It contained resources for parents, books on basic doctrine and Christian theology, chronicles of the history of the denomination. There were Bibles, videos, CDs, and a host of teaching materials instructive for children.

Donations kept the collection fresh. The people, myself included, who donated resources for this were invested in this particular type of ministry. Some books had been given just weeks before the whole thing was eradicated.

Stewardship was squandered. Because of my vocational role in the community at the local bookstore, I know that several hundred dollars worth of books had been purchased only this year. (But only a few hundred dollars. I have no significant conflict of interest here. My reaction is that of a bibliophile.)

The resources belonged to the congregation. People should have been told about the closure weeks ahead, and had the opportunity to take books of interest and make them part of their home library. They belonged to the people of the church, not the church staff.

They could have helped another church that wanted to have this ministry in their church building. This is a denomination that keeps talking about ‘church planting’ and ‘daughter churches’ and being a ‘network of churches,’ but I doubt any were offered the contents of this already-carefully curated collection. Some would be saddened to know what they missed out on.

They could have sent the resources overseas. Again, as a missionary-minded denomination the idea that the collection wasn’t considered to send to pastors and workers who were unable to take their libraries with them to Third World countries is equally perplexing. On a personal level, as an area volunteer for Christian Salvage Mission, I know the organization would have  embraced this acquisition with open arms and heartfelt gratitude on behalf of North American pastors and English-speaking indigenous workers in Africa and Asia. Instead, I wasn’t given the slightest inkling that this was in the works.

They kept two racks of fiction. This was the most disturbing thing of all; what was kept. These shelves are now located in the church’s new café and someone noted that some were books with exceptionally loud colors on the spines. If you were going to keep fiction, these were some of the worst choices. In other words, these books are props. They are being used solely for decorative purposes, to create atmosphere.

They may be deluded that electronic media has replaced books. This church recently signed a contract with Right Now Media, giving church people free access to a large grouping of video content. This is fraught with issues. Video teaching is not the same as learning off the printed page, nor is long-term absorption of the material as great. Older people in the church won’t bother to sign up for Right Now or figure out how it works. The mix of authors and teachers with online content is totally different than those who work solely in print. The library would have complemented the other service. Now they’ll never know if that would have happened.

The space will not see a higher purpose. Looking at that empty room, I wanted to be optimistic; I wanted to say, “Prove to me that what you’re about to do in this space is better than what you had.” It absolutely won’t happen.

The church bylaws are flawed. Major expenditures require approval in a congregational meeting, but the jettison of a major church asset requires no such approval. Given the number of now out-of-print titles that were displayed alongside more recent titles, I’d put the value of what was effectively trashed at at least $20,000 — books aren’t cheap — and that’s an informed opinion of someone working in the publishing industry. So you need to call a vote to acquire larger things, but you’re free to simply give away previously-acquired larger things? No. Not a good idea. For churches or families. Churches operate on the basis of consensus.

The library was doomed for at least a year. I kept forwarding PowerPoint slides along the lines of “Be sure to visit the church library…” to be used in the on-screen announcement crawl before the service, but never saw them used. Now I know why…

…I’m not sure where I’m going to church this Sunday. I have real issues with this. I’ve become what the church staff may say is a “color of the carpet” curmudgeon.

I don’t care. It was plain wrong. The stakeholders weren’t consulted. A horrible decision.

Now there’s no turning back.

 

August 31, 2017

Could Your Worship Leader(s) Pass a Basic Theology Test?

What just happened? I was trying to make the connection between two elements of a single spoken section between two worship songs, but I figured I had just missed something. Someone came to me after the service and asked what I thought. I said I didn’t think it made any sense. They said they thought it was heretical.

Last night my wife and I continued the discussion.

A pastor was once expected to spend an hour in study for every minute in the pulpit. 30 hours preparing the sermon. I don’t know what the expectation was if they also had to do a different sermon in the evening service (back when churches had them) but I’ve known pastors who if they don’t hit 30 hours come respectably close. One I know these days always has books and commentaries spread out on his desk throughout the week; and the payoff is evident with each new message.

So if a worship leader is going to have five minutes worth of patter between songs, should they not spend five hours preparing that? I know worship leaders that have spent a long time, in addition to selecting the songs, in preparation for what they’re going to say at the beginning and little comments interspersed throughout the worship set.

So…

Could your worship team leader(s) pass an elementary test of basic theology?

Could your worship team leader(s) provide helpful counsel to someone who seeks them out after the service?

Could your worship team leader(s) deliver a homily; a message; a sermon if asked to speak in a format longer than the short song introductions they give at weekend services?

I wonder how much thought is given to this when interviewing prospects for paid positions in the modern Evangelical church?

Have you ever experienced really bad theology during a worship set?

Does your church let the worship leader say much or is their mandate to simply play music?

If the modern Evangelical expectation is that pastors have a Masters level education, should there be a lesser but similar educational requirement for worship team leaders?

August 21, 2017

Shopping for Church Curriculum on Amazon or Google Involves Risk

The IVP art director who designed N.T. Wright’s Bible study series had a thing for boats.

Today’s topic deals with an internet reality that is filled with complexities on a number of levels for churches and people organizing independent fellowship groups and Bible studies.

Before delving into the meat of today’s subject, I want to address two potential situations which can exist in a majority of churches, at least in North America.

  1. In some churches, individual leaders are charged with sourcing and ordering materials for different ministries within the church, and expenses are reimbursed either through charging participants, or from the general fund account.
  2. In other churches, study material is a ‘top-down’ decision, with paid clerical (or administrative) staff choosing what each group will study and ordering it themselves on the group’s behalf.

The problems we’re discussing today generally apply to the former situation, though can also take place in a surprising number of cases involving the latter situation.

So…the group leader, capitulating to an internet shopping world goes online and discovers a particular resource for their small group that seems to fit the bill.

  1. It’s on the book of Philippians, which is exactly what they want.
  2. It’s a fill-in-the-blanks format, which is exactly what they want.
  3. It runs ten weeks, which is exactly what they want.
  4. It’s under $10 US per book, which is exactly what they want.

What could possibly go wrong? (go wrong? go wrong? go wrong?)

I’ve seen these things happen firsthand:

  • The website is out-of-date and the particular resource is out of print and now it’s become a ‘Holy Grail’ type of quest to find the item in question. (Some groups will locate a single copy and do photocopying which in my opinion places them in a gray ethical area in terms of both the practice and the appearance.)
  • The expectations of the group aren’t the same as the person doing the purchasing. (You’re looking for a study book and they want to do a book study.)
  • A Baptist group accidentally orders a resource by a Pentecostal/Charismatic author. (Though in one case, they actually decided to go around one more time with the same series.)
  • A Charismatic/Pentecostal group orders a resource by a cessationist author. (Discovered when they like it enough to check out their other writings, only to find their doctrine being slammed.)
  • A small group discovers they’ve accidentally ordered something belonging to what would be considered a fringe Christian group with doctrinal distinctives that were not readily apparent (eg. Seventh Day Adventist)
  • The search process lands someone on a website not realizing it belongs to an even further-removed group such as LDS/Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness and is impressed enough to delve further into their writings, never returning to their place of origin.

There are several ways this can happen:

  1. The product they followed up on when they typed their criteria into a search engine belonged to a commercial publisher or distributor who was paying for search engine optimization (SEO) or even a paid ad itself.
  2. The internet isn’t very discerning; it follows an algorithm to obtain results depending on what you type. But too many search terms can also send it off the rails.
  3. The person searching isn’t very discerning; they are not trained in terms of knowledge of who it is behind the website or the publisher.

At risk of leaving somebody out, here, in no particular order, are some publishers of Evangelical Bible study material I believe everyone in that target group can trust:

  • InterVarsity Press (IVP)
  • Zondervan
  • Baker Books
  • NavPress (publishing arm of The Navigators)
  • David C. Cook
  • Thomas Nelson
  • AMG Publishing
  • Tyndale Publishing House
  • Moody Publishers
  • City on a Hill Productions
  • Bethany House
  • Harvest House
  • Concordia Publishing
  • Abingdon Press
  • Waterbrook Press

(Some omissions were intentional; others I will correct depending on comments or emails received.)

Some of you who know me know that I continue to advocate on behalf of remaining Christian bookstores. This is the best way to source material because it has been vetted both by the above publishers and the individual store owner, who is a professional in this field.

Additionally, some authors who have books issued by the above publishing houses, have chosen to do some of their small group material in-house in order to capitalize on the smaller profits necessitated by smaller print runs. It’s hit and miss on whether local stores can get these, and the situation is greatly complicated for people living outside the US, where the shipping and handling costs are prohibitive, unless they’ve arranged for a representative in that country to stockpile copies for buyers there.

It reminds me of the story we carried last week on our trade blog, where a woman was looking for fall Bible study material in a thrift store.

She had found an old book — and I’m not saying it wasn’t a worthy resource to use — and now wanted to order ten of them.

You know what comes next, right? Long out of print. To be expected…

…I shudder to think people don’t realize that hoping to find your church’s adult elective curriculum in a second-hand store is rather foolhardy.

If you find something which meets the established criteria (as in the above example) and is included on the publisher list above, there are still things that can go wrong. Someone trained in the field can quickly spot potential for product mismatches like,

  • “Do you know that study guide needs to be used with a DVD?”
  • “That guide is actually a companion to the book, produced for people who are using both.”
  • “That only covers the last six chapters of Romans; it’s a part two which only makes sense if your group has done part one.”
  • “This series is intended for new Christians; your group might find the material a little oversimplified or even condescending.”
  • “They call that a study guide but it’s really meant for people who have some background in Biblical Greek (or Hebrew).”
  • “That resource is actually divided into 52 readings, meant to be done weekly over the course of a year.”
  • “It’s really just a few pages long; the price you’re seeing is for a package of ten.”
  • “The text quotes in that one are entirely from the KJV; your youth group might find that a bit awkward.”

Ultimately, you can’t get this type of service from Amazon and you’ll never get this type of product discernment using a search engine such as Bing, or Google. Admittedly, I am biased, but this simply isn’t the way to shop for materials for your study group.

 

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