Thinking Out Loud

August 19, 2017

For nearly an hour we were given answers to questions we weren’t asking

How Preaching Sounds to the Uncommitted

A few years ago we went on a farm tour. We still speak of it whenever we’re driving down the highway and see the sign indicating it as a tourist attraction. I think the purists among the farming community call this ‘agritourism’ or even ‘agritainment.’

The owner guided us around her property consisting entirely of one ‘crop’ a somewhat obscure herb that some reading this might never have had contact with. As we stood in one place in the hot sun for nearly 30 minutes, and in the field for about 60 minutes overall, our guide was oblivious to any potential discomfort. She speaks well and clearly. She is obviously intelligent.

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

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

genuine passion + extensive knowledge = audience engagement

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

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

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

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

Now I know how preaching sounds to an atheist.

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

If the medium is the message, is the storyteller the story? Our credibility is born out of who we are, and our storyteller told us a story that communicated nothing of herself, or any other people. She shared an expert stream of hows, of dos and don’ts, of whens and wheres and hows, of so many centimeters apart and deep and high, of percentages and techniques, of days and weeks and months and years – but no who.

We were told that the plant was native to the Mediterranean area. So who brought it over here and why?

We were told that there are 57 varieties of the plant, examples of each to be found in a separate plot of soil. Who created them all?

One little nugget that dropped was that her family had, until a few years ago, been market gardeners (implying a varied and multi-seasonal crop). She never explained how they’d made the leap from something so practical and communal to something so esoteric and exclusive. Where did this passion come from?

There was no history, no personality. No identity.

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

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

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

October 27, 2015

Finding Your Church’s Comfort Sweet Spots

Sometimes we don't realize the way first-time visitors see things when the walk into our buildings, or maybe, like this Community Baptist Church van, we're just not thinking ahead.

Sometimes we don’t realize the way first-time visitors see things when the walk into our buildings, or maybe, like this Community Baptist Church van, we’re just not thinking ahead.

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 superficial environmental details 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! 

Smell

  • Some churches smell like a church; there’s no other way to say that. Is it the wooden pews? Something given off by old hymnbooks? Stale air from a sanctuary that’s sat relatively idle since the previous week’s service? It could also be something not quite so neutral. Maybe it’s the smell of sweaty socks from a sports night the youth group had downstairs the night before. Or the smell of food from the potluck taking place after the service. It might even be the smell of perfumes worn by mostly female adherents who are mostly above a certain age; a scent many are allergic to. (We’ve discussed that last one in this popular post.)
  • Of course, you can try to compensate for any and all of the above with products that prove the adage that sometimes the cure is worse than the disease. The result can actually cause some people to wince as they enter, or after prolonged exposure.

Although we would never admit it, some of us who attend older church buildings have a subconscious affinity to the smell of the church building, but no clue how it impacts first time visitors. Maybe the Episcopalians and Roman Catholics have the cure: Just burn off any transgressing smells. You can read more about that in my next book, The Case for Candles.

So what superficials have affected worship in your past experience?


From last week’s link list, here’s an excellent article dealing with the exterior that greets first-time visitors:

 

August 7, 2015

Life at the Church is Kinda Laid Back: How our Preaching Sounds to Newcomers

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

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

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

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

genuine passion + extensive knowledge = audience engagement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

August 12, 2013

How Preaching Sounds to the Uncommitted

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

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

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

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

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

genuine passion + extensive knowledge = audience engagement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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