Thinking Out Loud

October 29, 2019

MacArthur: A Lesson for the Boys and Men

Filed under: Christianity, current events, theology, women — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:30 am

This is about the 8th or 9th time I’ve found a Twitter thread that I felt was worthy of a wider forum or a different media. This time around the author is Tish Warren Harrison, author of Liturgy of the Ordinary (InterVarsity). I know as I’m typing this that some of you are weary of this subject, but I believe she offers a fresh perspective.

When everyone was talking about John MacArthur and “Go home,” I was busy having a human being, so I haven’t been online. But do I care? Of course I care. I care because I’m a female priest and care about Beth Moore. And because I care about the church. And here’s what I thought:

I have often said that I keep having this conversation — not just about women’s ordination/roles but about women’s catechesis/discipleship, institutional empowerment and accountability, theological training, leadership, and depth — for my daughters, but this week, I had a son.

And I have realized that we need this conversation just as much for him and every boy of the next generation. Because it is hard to be a faithful, orthodox Christian in the world. I think it is getting harder.

If boys and men can’t learn from and value the gifts, insight, teaching, knowledge, writing, ministries, and works of God in 50%+ of the church, it will be all the harder for them to walk with Jesus.

Sexism is a sin. We don’t often speak of it in those terms, but it’s not just “problematic.” It’s a principality and power. It is idolatry. And like all sin, it diminishes us as a church, not just those sinned against, but those who are in sin.

(And note I’m not talking about complementarianism as a biblical conviction, which is not what any of this is about — Beth isn’t ordained even. This is about if women can speak about God.)

September 26, 2019

Local Church Initiatives: More Isn’t Better

Some background: On Tuesday I posted a brief article contrasting those churches which are programmed to death with those not offering enough avenues for engagement. You can read that article here.

That promoted this reader comment:

I’ve been involved as a leader in both “kinds” of churches…at one church, we had the philosophy that MORE ministries were better, in other words, it was like a smorgasbord of ministries that were available every week. The calendar HAD to be full. I constantly felt the pressure as a leader to fill positions, fund initiatives, provide space, and pressure people to be involved.

Then I started leading a church where the only ministries we had were the ones that “surfaced” within the Body itself…in other words, people who felt the leading of the Lord to begin a ministry, started them and “staffed” them with like-minded people they knew who shared their passion, I found so much freedom in that…and I found that the ministries took care of themselves better over the long haul.

I am now a firm believer in “less is more”…in fact, in most of the churches I’ve led since my “smorgasbord” days, the church has been healthier because we have allowed the Lord to lead us in birthing ministries instead of having a busy “template” for what church should look like. In fact, I think for most churches, they could let about 1/2 of their ministries “die” and they would be happier and healthier. The issue is giving people the freedom and encouragement to build their lives in the Lord IN the midst of their lives instead of forcing them to live the life we think they should live…one built around church activities instead of simply living for Jesus in the spheres of influence that is their daily life. That’s been my experience…

The comment came from Rev. Dr. Robin J. Dugall who describes himself as “Pastor, Professor, Musician, Teacher and follower of Jesus;” and writes at Spiritual Regurgitations. (see more below*)

Because of his insights with this, I invited him to expand on this…

More isn’t better: It’s exhausting and counter-productive

The editor of this blog started “thinking out loud” and, in the process, requested a bit more from a reply that I posted to “Volunteers Wanted.” This issue has been the story of much of my professional life in the Church. Without bringing up at all any thoughts regarding the differentiation between “volunteers” and those using their gifts in ministry as an expression of their unique Kingdom calling, I’ll wade into the invitational waters.

I never thought I would say this much less write it, but I’ve lived a good majority of my 65 years of life involved in some manner or form of “Church.” From parachurch ministries to outdoor ministries…from small congregational ministries to what used to be regarded as “large” church settings. Thanks to the Lord, I’ve never had the opportunity to live my Kingdom life within the sphere of the megachurch. There is a part of me that cringes simply imagining the intensity of financial and organizational pressure that goes along with the management of any large “company.”

As a “churchworld” (I’ll define that term below) leader, my responsibilities have ranged from that which would be regarded by some as the sphere of the Senior Pastor to the leadership of a plethora of “sub-ministries” including children’s, youth, music, small groups, leadership and theological/biblical development. So, in regard to this issue of “Volunteerism” and what it takes these days to not only “do” ministry but enable and equip Jesus following people to be responsive to the call of God upon their lives, I’ve had my share of experience.

I must say that I’ve made some drastic, strategic and, in my mind, God-honoring changes in my ministry philosophy over the past two decades. Much of those changes have occurred because of witnessing the futility and counter-productivity of the “more is better” mentality. I’ve been involved as a leader in both “kinds” of churches…at one church, we had the philosophy that MORE ministries were better, in other words, it was like a smorgasbord of ministries that were available every week. We operated under with the mindset that the “calendar HAD to be full.” Subsequently, it was. It wasn’t simply the fact that I was out of my home probably five to six out of seven nights per week, but we constantly felt the overwhelming pressure as leaders to fill positions, fund initiatives, provide space, and pressure people to be involved. The key aspect of the previous phrase is “pressure people”…and, trust me, that’s what happened.

When Christendom ruled, the belief stood that the Church should be the center of life. And, in some respects, Christendom did appropriately draw one’s faith journey into a rich life of worship, fellowship and encouragement in faithfulness. Yet what has occurred over time as many Christians have bemoaned Christendom’s demise is that a form of institutional tyranny arose in its place. The Church was no longer the center of culture, so Church people formed a hybrid (more of a mutation) of Christendom to take its place – something I call, “churchworld.” When I talk about “churchworld” I am attempting to put into approachable language some way to clarify the overwhelming, insatiable “hunger” of religious institutionalism to demand the whole of a person’s life and attention.

“Churchworld” is one-part theme park and one-part assembly line…one part “money pit” and one-part shopping mall. It is built upon the values of consumerism and utilitarianism – in other words, how can we get the most out of people in order to give back to people what we perceive they need. In my humble opinion, that’s what “churchworld” does…just as the price of a ticket to any Disney park has insanely and prohibitively increased in cost for day’s excursion, so has the “cost” in time, energy, money, and “personnel” of feeding the demands of “churchworld.”

My wife and I have adult children that are involved in “churchworld” ministries. They constantly give witness to the increasing demands for the totality of their lives to be focused on sustaining the institution’s strategy of ministry. They have shared with me the fact that many people who are their friends in the Lord have made it a habit to leave churches after a year or so simply because of the increasing burdens and demands of involvement. Once involved in feeding the “beast,” it is hard to back away graciously without risking the subsequent woes and grief given by overwhelmed staff. I would never coin myself as a predictive prophesy individual, yet it doesn’t take much forethought to see the coming fall of “churchworld.”

One of my favorite authors, John Kavanaugh compares Ancient Rome’s adherence to “bread and circus” (the book, Following Christ in a Consumer Society; John Drane says the same in his books on the McDonaldization of the Church) to that of “churchworld’s” fascination with entertainment and feeding/attracting the masses.

Contrast that experience with what happened in my life as a leader and fellow disciple when I started leading a church where the only ministries we had were the ones that “surfaced” within the Body itself…in other words, people who felt the leading of the Lord to begin a ministry, started them and “staffed” them with like-minded people they knew who shared their passion and sense of calling for that ministry. Some call this ministry strategy, “Organic.” Truthfully, that kind of language aptly describes what occurs in reality. The kingdom of God that Jesus described is viral, organic and, by nature, a movement. It grows where no apparent strategy or potential can be found…and it lives, not by human energy and ingenuity, but by spiritual mystery.

In the organic ministry realm, we are much more apt to be praising God for his leadership and fruitfulness in people’s lives than praising ourselves for the plethora of activities that we can effectively manage and multiply by sheer effort and relational intimidation. Personally, I found so much freedom living as a living “organism.” With that mindset, with a renewed embrace of the dynamic spiritual nature of the Body of Christ, I found that the ministries took care of themselves better over the long haul. For example, in my current congregational setting, we have a few teenagers who would benefit from a good youth ministry program. Now, I could for a ministry team, hire a youth worker and build an entire infrastructure to handle that ministry need…that’s the programmatic approach. Even so, we have no one in the church who is sensing the “call” of God to form another program.

In the past, I would have beaten down people in an attempt to build another program. I chose not to do that. Instead, I called a pastor friend of mine who leads another church in town. They have an amazing youth ministry program and have built a solid ministry strategy to disciple teens. I talked to the pastor; told him I was interested in “investing” the kids in our church into their youth ministry program. I felt that partnership was more important than simply duplicating what is happening right down our street (so to speak). I talked to the parents of the teens, the youth themselves and now they are loving what God is doing in their lives as they participate in that other church’s ministry.

Some might say, “well, aren’t you fearful that you will lose that family to that other church?” No, I’m not and if they did leave, I would bless them on their way. I’m not going to try to be “all things to all people” any longer. I’m not going to fear ministry partnerships…in fact, I want so desperately to affirm them.

Church, at least in what I read in the New Testament, has more to do with organic living than most people want to admit. I am now a firm believer in “less is more”…in fact, in most of the churches I’ve led since my “smorgasbord” days, the church has been healthier because we have allowed the Lord to lead us in birthing ministries instead of having a busy “template” for what church should look like. In fact, I think for most churches, they could let about half of their ministries “die” and they would be happier and healthier.

The issue is giving people the freedom and encouragement to build their lives in the Lord IN the midst of their lives instead of forcing them to live the life we think they should live…one built around church activities instead of simply living for Jesus in the spheres of influence that is their daily life. This explains why Jesus did not ask us to go and “make gatherings or churches or home groups or…” He did not ask us to go and “make house churches.” He said, “go and make disciples.” Discipling viral disciplers is the end game. This places YOU and ME squarely in the midst of reproductive life that the kingdom is intrinsically about. We become movement-starters not church-starters. We release disciples who will influence the world throughout their lifetime and beyond.

When we start “churches, communities, meetings, etc.”, our focus tends to be on the communal gathering—what to do, how to do it, what it looks like, etc. We may say to ourselves that we are learning to “be” the church but often our priority remains on developing the structure/form/institution. When following Jesus and inviting others to follow him becomes our focus (discipling viral disciples), we have to shift from the “gathering” mentality to the “lifestyle-going” mentality. This shift will propel us from being church-starters to movement starters (where churches and gatherings spring up along the way).

One more thought – consider “wiki-based ministry.” In other words, I desire to build a “Collaboration based” ministry environment. I believe that God is active in EVERY person so that our community creates meaning – our ministry partnership is a reflection of a descriptive process with no prescribed meaning; we fix us, no experts are needed; leadership teams and pastors are good but only one of the gifts of community. We believe in a distinctly relational ecclesiology. That is organic…that is a celebration of less is more.

 


*From his About page: “Currently, in addition to being an Adjunct Professor in Biblical Studies at Azusa Pacific University, he is a pastor of a faith community, Adjunct Professor at Concordia University (Portland, OR) and an instructor/mentor of the Missional Training Team for the Lutheran denomination.”

September 24, 2019

Volunteers Wanted: A Tale of Two Churches

Ted and Tom are twin brothers. In their early 40s. Living at opposite ends of a large city. Both attend churches with weekly attendance in the four-to-five hundred range.

volunteers needed 2At Tom’s church, the Sunday announcements are fairly predictable. More people are needed to serve in the nursery. And the food pantry. And the middle-school boys Sunday School class. And the tenor section of the choir. And a drummer for the contemporary worship team. And the facilities committee. And now they’re asking for people to serve as parking lot attendants.

“Why do we need parking lot attendants with only 250 parking spots?” said Tom aloud to no one in particular.

“Shhhh!” said his wife, as the couple in front turned around and scowled.

“Did I say that out loud?” Tom asked.

…Across town at Ted’s church the situation is much reversed. There are not as many ministry initiatives, and Ted who happens to be a drummer and a tenor and a fairly competent pre-teen Sunday School teacher has nothing to do on Sunday morning. He shows up. He gives money. He has meaningful conversations with people during the coffee time between services. But he always feels a little lost on Sunday mornings and to his credit, he helps out on Monday nights at The Salvation Army and on Saturday mornings he is committed to a men’s group at another church. There just aren’t any pressing needs for anything Ted has to offer.

Ted and Tom often compare notes. While there’s nothing new about churches asking for assistance in various departments, Tom wishes his church was more like Ted’s (and that there were fewer announcements.) On the other hand, Ted his envious of Tom’s situation; he’d like to feel he was needed even if it was the superfluous task of welcoming cars in the parking lot.

volunteers neededSo which is the more healthy situation? What would the church metrics people say about these churches? Is a healthy church one in which there are always needs because lots of exciting things are happening, or is a healthy church one in which people are stepping up and filling volunteer ministry positions as quickly as they become available?

And what about Ted? Should there be some avenue of service for him to continue to develop his spiritual gifts? Should Ted’s church be creating some new ministry initiatives so that people like Ted can feel more involved or plugged-in?

Where on the continuum does your church lie?

September 13, 2019

Now That You’re A Christian, You Need to Find Another Church

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:27 am

I spent my formative years in The Peoples Church in Toronto, Canada at a time when we didn’t have the term “megachurch” but if it had existed, Peoples was the first and only one in Canada during those years. We also didn’t have the term “seeker sensitive,” but Peoples, under the ministry of Dr. Paul B. Smith, defined that completely.

There was always the hint that a person who found Christ in that environment might reach a point where they want to step out either (a) to serve, or (b) to come under deeper teaching in an another church.

Steven Furtick

So I wasn’t totally alarmed when I started to read this profile of Steven Furtick:

Furtick is charismatic in the pulpit, and he is eager to share his desire to reach the lost. But he seems to believe that once the lost are “found” his work is done. “If you know Jesus Christ, I’m sorry to break it to you, this church is not for you,” Furtick says. This applies even if you’ve only known Christ for as little as a week.  “Last week was the last week that Elevation Church existed for you,” Furtick declares.

Furtick forgets that Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.” And we know the entire point of a pastor is to shepherd the flock under his care (John 21:17; 1 Peter 5:2-3)…

At least not alarmed at first.

Over the years, I’ve gone through stages of affection and concern for the Elevation pastor. But Furtick is given to hyperbole, and while hyperbole is by definition an excess, his “Last week” statement above could be shattering to a person who has crossed the line of faith and wants to know determine — as another megachurch terms it — “next steps.”

We don’t ask newborns to take the elevator to the lobby and catch a taxi to their next station in life.

In the field that was once called “Personal Evangelism” it was called “Follow Up.” The quotation marks and capital letters are intentional. I’m trying to make a point here, and the point is that if nothing else, the parable of the soils (or seeds, if you prefer) tells us what happens if the seeds are not well-planted; not well-nurtured.

It reminds me of the girl who, on completing her Confirmation, told me “The day I joined the church is the day I left the church;” treating it as if it was some type of graduation ceremony.

Nothing could be further from the truth…

…I’ve used these charts before in various forms, and I apologize for not knowing the source of these particular graphics, but they illustrate that the work of the church continues both before and after. The original black-and-white version I have is from Contemporary Christian Communication: Its Theory and Practice, by James K. Engle (1979)

 

September 9, 2018

Awkward But Perfect Spiritual Formation Metaphor

This summer a local church ran a VBS program which had a mining theme, so I don’t know if the advertising tag line originated with the publisher or with the church, but it’s stuck in my head:

Come like a carbon
Leave like a diamond.

It’s definitely not a Biblical phrase, but it aptly describes God working to form us, shape us, mold us into the image of His Son.

And carbon, at least in the form of charcoal with which we’re more familiar, is messy. You touch it and your hands get dirty. But that’s what we hand God to work with when we ask him to assume Lordship of our lives.

On the other hand, there is nothing like the brilliance of light being reflected and refracted in a diamond. That’s the image of God’s completing His work in us, though we won’t fully see ourselves as perfected this side of eternity. That comes later.  

We all want this. But the crushing pressure of true diamond formation is unimaginable. Really, that is the metaphor. That becoming a diamond is sometimes going to be painful.

But it’s going to be worth it.

Come like a carbon
Leave like a diamond!

 

 

June 28, 2018

Choosing Kingdom Over Empire

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:59 am

Several years back, I got to know Canadian Baptist pastor Clarke Dixon. As I read his blog, Sunday’s Shrunk Sermon (where he takes his weekly sermon and shrinks it) I realized it was an absolutely perfect fit for Christianity 201 (our sister blog) and so his writing appears there most Thursdays. Today, I wanted to give readers here a taste for what Clarke writes there, and as this is today’s C201 post, many of you get to read it here first for a change! You can also read it at Clarke’s blog.

Will we ever wake up in a world with no violence or conflict? We see it on the news, we hear about it in the lives of people around us, maybe we experience it personally. Yes, there will be a day there will be no more conflict. Christ will return and there will be

a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away . . . And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’” (Revelation 21:1,5 NRSV)

But are we to just wait for that day, putting up with all this conflict until then? The prophet Nahum will help us find our way.

Nahum points us in the right direction by pointing out what happens when we get on the wrong track. Nahum is a prophecy to a people who had been on the wrong track. The Assyrians were on the track to empire. Nahum had the task of telling them that they had reached the end of the line. There are three problems with the track to empire.

First problem with the empire track; empire is temporary. Much of the history of the world is a history of the empire after empire seeking to become the biggest and best. The history of the world teaches us that they all fall in the end. Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, it doesn’t matter, empire is always temporary.

There is a better track; the track that leads to the Kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is eternal. We may struggle to understand the book of Revelation, but the main message is really quite simple; empires rise and fall, but the Kingdom of God is eternal.

So are we building towards empire, or Kingdom? Are we building for things that are temporary? Are our time, talents, and treasures going toward things that last?

Second problem with the empire track: empire destroys relationships. In empire living, there are only allies or enemies. The peoples within and around an empire are either going to help the empire get bigger, or they are going to get in the way and be a threat.

There is a better track, one that leads to the Kingdom of God. In the Kingdom of God, there are only neighbours. Jesus taught us to “love thy neighbour as thyself” and then went on to define our neighbor as anyone and everyone.

When we meet people, do we see them as either allies of enemies? Do we see them as either being useful to us, or in our way, and even a threat? Or do we simply see them as neighbours to be loved?

Third problem with the empire track; empires are built through brute force and brutality. Nahum tells of this, for example:

1 Ah! City of bloodshed,
utterly deceitful, full of booty—
no end to the plunder!
2 The crack of whip and rumble of wheel,
galloping horse and bounding chariot!
3 Horsemen charging,
flashing sword and glittering spear,
piles of dead,
heaps of corpses,
dead bodies without end—
they stumble over the bodies! Nahum 3:1-3 (NRSV)

Yet she became an exile,
she went into captivity;
even her infants were dashed in pieces
at the head of every street;
lots were cast for her nobles,
all her dignitaries were bound in fetters. Nahum 3:10 (NRSV)

In building empires, countless of people were killed. For those who lived, eyes were often gouged out, tongues cut off, people sold off and removed far from home. So brutal were some empires that even unborn babies were ripped from their mother’s wombs, and orphaned infants dashed to the ground. This is how empires struck fear in their enemies. Better to surrender to the power of a “better” empire, than experience it firsthand. Nahum’s prophecy is about the Assyrian empire experiencing what it dished out to others.

All who hear the news about you
clap their hands over you.
For who has ever escaped
your endless cruelty? Nahum 3:19 (NRSV)

There is, thankfully, a better track, the track that leads to the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is built with a different kind of force: “not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit” Zechariah. 4:9 (NKJV).

Jesus said “those who draw the sword, will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:62-54 NRSV). Jesus was doing two things when he refused to use violence at his arrest in Gethsemane. He was taking the Kingdom track for our sake, so that we might be forgiven rather than destroyed. But he was also giving us an example to follow, an example of Kingdom thinking, Kingdom living, Kingdom dying. Jesus call us to pick up the cross and follow, which means to trade empire for Kingdom. We are to become Kingdom people, good news people.

We are empire people when we show up with swords and guns and bombs. We are Kingdom people when we show up with the Spirit of God: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Galatians 5:22,23 (NRSV). Do we show up to our relationships with swords or the Spirit? Do we show up on Facebook, Twitter and other social media with swords or Spirit? Do we show up ready ready to fight people? Or to fight with people against the evil in their lives? Do we show up as empire people or Kingdom people?

You might perceive a problem with the Kingdom track. It does not seem to take into account your suffering at the hands of another. It is unfair. You deserve vengeance. And perhaps you are right. It is unfair. However, the prophecy of Nahum, though addressed to the Assyrians, was for the encouragement of Israel when they experienced what seemed to be very unfair treatment. Having been on the wrong track for a long time, Assyria has reached the end of the line. However, nowhere in the prophecy of Nahum is there a call for Israel to take up arms. There is no need. We can think of Paul’s word to the Christians in Rome who also knew a thing or two about being treated unfairly:

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:17-21 (NRSV)

Every day we wake up to violence and conflict. Every day is an opportunity to live as God’s good news people. Every day is an opportunity for Kingdom rather than empire. While we may not feel we have much influence in conflicts around the globe, the ones close to home are opportunities for Kingdom building.

November 9, 2017

The Essential Art of Concision

I debated between calling this “The Lost art of Concision” versus “The Developing Art of Concision.” First, a definition is in order:

Therefore, when I speak of the concision as a developing art, I mean the necessity of being able to put ideas across in a short-and-to-the-point manner; something you need in a world of soundbites. Last year I wrote,

It was Noam Chomsky who introduced me to the idea of concision. I’ve taught it as, “You’re selling your car through a media which is charging you $1.50 per word. How do you describe your vehicle persuasively, but keep the cost down?”

But when I speak of it as a dying art, I’m thinking specifically of the migration of many bloggers from what I’m doing now — typing/writing words — to podcasting; and to Twitter’s decision to gift everyone with 140 additional characters on Tuesday evening.

Twitter is obsessed with the number 140. (Originally videos were limited to 2 minutes and 20 seconds, which is 140 seconds.)  The new length, 280 characters, doubles this even though 160 would have been a nice gift in itself. Or 180 or 200. 280 seems long, it seems to rob Twitter of it’s basic character, heretofore. But I didn’t always feel that way. When I joined, I wrote:

I can’t say what I have to say in 140 characters.

In case you missed it, I tend to write long.

But the word concision has come up on this blog somewhat frequently. Earlier this year I wrote,

I have for a long time questioned how much time sermon has left.  With all due respect to those of you currently honing your homiletic craft at either the undergraduate or graduate level, I really think that this particular form is destined to go the way of the CD or the land line phone. I’m not saying there aren’t some great preachers out there; I spend my evening hours listening to sermon after sermon online. But that’s me. For others there are a host of reasons why sermon doesn’t work. ADD or ADHD comes to mind. Some sermons are simply too long. Some say it’s just not how they learn. Some claim that high profile Christian pastors have simply set the bar too high and average pastors can’t achieve the quality that is now widely available online. Others would argue that we’ve become accustomed to media bursts, sound bites, and increased concision.

The Bible itself is amazingly concise. Readers are often fascinated to learn how narratives they had heard about — Creation, Jonah, The Prodigal Son — when they actually got around to reading them, were expressed in a very limited fashion. In an article about Christ’s ascension the subject was raised (pun intended):

A reader wrote, “We’re told… at his ascension that he will come again in like manner as they have seen him go.” But what do we know about that manner? How long were the disciples staring as he rose into the sky? Was there a low cloud ceiling that day? The Bible’s tendency to brevity and concision makes me think that perhaps God didn’t just beam Jesus up, but his ascension may have have been more prolonged; a vertical processional to heaven.

It also came up in a piece on diminishing attention spans:

You see this in the way books and articles in periodicals are written now; in fact you’re seeing it in the piece you’re presently reading. Pick up an older book — say 60 years or more old — and you might find an entire page consisting of a single paragraph. You might even find several consecutive pages consisting of a single paragraph. (I’m told that some chapters of Paul’s epistles were often a single sentence in the original Greek, no doubt a weaving of dominant and subordinate clauses that the reader of that time would follow easily.)

Today we use paragraph breaks to keep the content flowing; to keep the eyes moving on the page; to force us writers to adopt a greater degree of concision. Our writing is also broken up by more numbered or alphanumeric lists, by bullet points, by sub-headers and by pull quotes. (We use them often at Christianity 201, where the devotions are by definition somewhat longer, and we want to make what would otherwise be an entire page of text more interesting.)

The trend towards podcasting is actually surprising, given the push toward brevity in a bullet-point world. Have you ever thought of what a full transcript of your favorite podcast would look like printed out? It would run for pages and pages. A blog post on a similar topic would be less than 2,000 words, and easily digested in under 7 minutes. (Or spoken in 15 minutes. Compare word length to spoken time at this speech minutes converter.)  We wrote about podcasts on an article on the trend from literacy to orality:

Inherent in podcasting is the right to ramble. Listeners get the nuance that’s missing in a traditional blog post (and this is one of the great liabilities of email) but they have to take the time to wade through the host(s) stream-of-consciousness narration. There’s no concision, a quality that decades ago Noam Chomsky had predicted would be, moving forward, a key asset in communications. A great concept that’s probably a seven or eight paragraph blog post instead becomes a 53 minute podcast.  Andy Warhol’s comment that “In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes;” might be modified to, “In the 21st century, everyone will have their own talk show or be the host of their own radio station.” 

As Christian communicators however, we have to be careful when we try to reduce to mystery or complexity of the gospel to a concise motto, slogan, tag line or formula. In an article titled What is the Gospel, I wrote,

I also think that, when considered in the light of the Jewish appreciation of the scriptures as a great jewel that reflects and refracts the light in infinite ways each time we look at it, the idea of trying to formulate a precis of the Bible is to venture into an endless and perhaps even frustrating mission. What would Jesus think of trying to consolidate something so great, so wide, so high, so deep into a finite number of words?  Concision is great, but maybe it doesn’t work here.

Anyway Twitter, thanks for the extra characters; but I earnestly hope I have the wisdom to not overuse them. Readers, it’s a busy world out there; keep it short!


Yes, today I basically quoted myself throughout this article. To further embellish Chomsky’s teaching on concision would have made the article…well…not so concise.

For those mystified by the final graphic image, TL/DR stands for Too long, didn’t read.

For further reference in thinking about the difference between podcasting and blogging, this article is less than 1,100 words; you can halve the minutes in the above example.

 

April 17, 2017

Willow Creek Continues to Rewrite the Playbook for Weekend Services

Two weeks ago Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago’s Northwest suburbs had an “Authors Weekend.” Teaching pastor Steve Carter interviewed Anne Lamott and then went into an another exchange with Lee Strobel, the latter having been a former Willow staff member. (Later in the week Josh McDowell visited on Wednesday night.) You can watch those interviews at this link.

Doing an interview in a church service can be a hit or miss proposition. Especially if it is replacing a traditional teaching segment aka sermon. Furthermore, the reaction to any particular guest is going to be subjective. Just a week or two earlier, Willow hosted Olympic gymnast Gabrielle Douglas. That one didn’t resonate with me so much.

But watching Carter talk with Lamott and later Strobel, I realized what they are doing has some broader implications.

First, I have for a long time questioned how much time sermon has left.  With all due respect to those of you currently honing your homiletic craft at either the undergraduate or graduate level, I really think that this particular form is destined to go the way of the CD or the land line phone. I’m not saying there aren’t some great preachers out there; I spend my evening hours listening to sermon after sermon online. But that’s me. For others there are a host of reasons why sermon doesn’t work. ADD or ADHD comes to mind. Some sermons are simply too long. Some say it’s just not how they learn. Some claim that high profile Christian pastors have simply set the bar too high and average pastors can’t achieve the quality that is now widely available online. Others would argue that we’ve become accustomed to media bursts, sound bites, and increased concision.

Second, I have for a long time advocated teaching modules rather than a single focus half hour. A few of us are old enough to remember when NBC introduced the show Real People. Hailed as the first magazine format program — though I’m not sure it predated 60 Minutes — this variety-meets-information type of programming is now widely used. I always thought that the ideal solution in church would be to break up the 30 minutes into three 10 minute segments, separated by music, announcements, or scripture readings. One module might be topical. One might be exegetical. Or if you prefer, one might be light while one might go deeper. One might deal with family life. One might delve into an obscure Old Testament character. (If that last one sounds boring, remember, we’re talking ten minutes here. You don’t have time to lose people!)

What Willow and Carter did that Sunday met these objectives in the ways that follow, but I also want to add one extra point.

The interview was a nice alternative to a sermon. Key here was the fact that the two authors really had something to say. The aforementioned sports star was a good testimony, and she’s probably a role model for a lot of young girls — and they did have a sermon that week as well — but Strobel and Lamott brought a lot of substance to the table. There was also spontaneity, including an opportunity to text in questions. (I wasn’t there in person, but watching the Saturday night service live, I could have easily participated in this.)

The interviews would appeal to different people. Strobel’s was also a testimony, but also tied into an upcoming movie. A number key points in Christian apologetics were covered. Another aspect to this story is what happens in a marriage when one partner has crossed the line of faith and the other is hostile toward Christianity. I hadn’t read anything by Lamott but her personal, unaffected demeanor probably connected with people early in their Christian journey, with seniors, and also with women. In other words, a wide swath demographically.

The interviewer had done his homework. This was the thing that really impressed me. Steve Carter wasn’t just ‘winging it.’ He had spent some time studying both the literature and the biographies of his two guests. Willow had a point to all this, they were doing it for well considered reasons; otherwise they wouldn’t have done it at all. But if they were going to do it, they were going to do it well. (Their commitment to excellence shone through their Good Friday and Easter services this past weekend, also available online.)

Finally, a confession.

I’m a sermon guy. Yes, I just said it’s a dying art form, but I enjoy them. So it would be quite easy for me to feel disappointed I wasn’t going to get one from Willow that week. Truth is, I tuned in especially to see what Strobel would say, and because his connection as a former Willow Creek staffer made it especially interesting. Plus I’ve seen Carter and Bill Hybels do this sort of thing many times before and they aren’t exactly novices.

Can your church snag top name guests? You probably don’t have the budget, nor do they have a lot of availability. But there are probably some stories that Christian people in your community can tell better on a two-chair set than can be related from behind a podium. There are probably topics that can be presented with two members of the pastoral staff taking a tag team approach. There is probably preaching content that can be modified to suit a Q & A format, even if it’s not as spontaneous as you would like it to be. Finally, there’s possibly someone in your church who might, on a one-off Sunday, have something vital to share but would need the help of a more seasoned speaker to rein them in when they go off topic or off focus, or to simply keep the message moving.

I’m not advocating this for everyone; I’m just saying it deserves consideration.


 

 

March 14, 2017

Salvation is Instantaneous, Spiritual Formation Takes Time

img 032915I am frequently reminded that people new to the journey of following Christ often need time in various outward areas. Their inward growth may be great: A love for Jesus, a desire to tell others, and a cultivation of personal discipline in Bible study and devotions. But becoming a follower of Christ isn’t about outward conformity, and some things may need more time, such as:

  • Language – If you are directly involved in mentoring the person, then it’s appropriate for you to try to help them shape their speech along higher standards. But if you’re not the one doing discipleship with them, you have to let this go, most times. You’ll be surprised how more is caught than taught on this one.
  • Spending Priorities – A person may have begun a process of percentage giving to their local church, but still has spending patterns about which you may not approve. This may just be a matter of time and spiritual maturity. On this, I keep thinking about the little diagram in the Four Spiritual Laws booklet, wherein the various aspects of life have come under Christ’s control. (See second of two images below.)
  • Dress – This is usually a discussion about women, though it doesn’t have to be limited to them. In a church setting, sometimes someone needs to be pulled aside on this one, but it has to be done very lovingly so as to not drive the person away. Admittedly, in many of our local churches, this one is awkward.
  • Addictions – The Twelve Step Program meetings, in various forms under various names, are proof that once addicted, battling this can be a lifelong fight. One program which confronts this from a Christian perspective is Celebrate Recovery. Some things however, like smoking, should be considered superficial.
  • Attitudes – Everything from racial prejudice to arrogance could get tossed into this basket. Remember, they’ve not arrived yet, and neither have you. Rather than have an agenda here, it’s far more beneficial to you to watch the Holy Spirit work in their lives.

Did I leave some out?

None of us started this walk fully formed, fully arrived; but solid 1:1 discipleship, the influence of a small group, sermons which deal with the lifestyle application of various scriptures, and the conviction of the Holy Spirit will make a difference in what people see.

With people who manifest outward traits that you or others find problematic, remember that God looks on the heart.

 

January 20, 2017

A Theology of Non-Anger

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:20 am

For some time now, I’ve ended the day unwinding with a 20-minute podcast compiled from excerpts of The Brant Hansen Show. Brant‘s a long-time Christian radio guy who has served with Air-1 and WAY-FM. He’s joined daily by producer Sherri Lynn to whom God has apparently given the gift of laughter.

On the sidebar of Brant’s website I kept noticing a reference to Brant’s book, but I figured it to be some self-published project, after all, these days everybody has a book. Only a few days ago did I realize it had been released through Thomas Nelson, and decided it warranted further investigation.

unoffendableUnoffendable: How Just One Change Can Make All of Life Better was actually released in the spring of 2015, so we’re coming up to two years. (You’ll notice my blog hasn’t been reviewing new releases lately; I just share what I’m enjoying.) If you think that the people in Christian radio are somewhat shallow, you’re going to be pleasant surprised — perhaps amazed — at the substance in this book.

Basically, Unoffendable is a study of instances in scripture (and real life) where anger is a factor. You could call the book a treatise on the theology of anger, though I prefer to take a positive spin and emphasize non-anger. We can be so quick to assume, to lash out, and to hurt. Our knee-jerk reactions aren’t good for the people in our line of fire, and they’re not good for us.

The timing on this is significant as commentators are constantly reminding us that the hallmark of social media in particular and the internet in general seems to be our ability to be easily offended. At everything. We are an offended generation.

The book isn’t necessary a self-help title. You won’t find, for example, six steps to avoid getting angry. Rather, through personal anecdotes and lessons from scripture, proceeding through the book’s chapters instills a climate of non-offense as you read. There’s a sense in which the book has a calming effect.

In many respects, the book is an extension of and consistent with the radio show. There are sections where Brant quotes letters he received from listeners and in my head, I was hearing those as the phone calls he takes on air. Our ability with today’s technology to access spoken word content by authors means you can really allow your imagination to hear the author as you read. We found a station that streams the whole show — not the podcast — daily and listened in just to get the feel.

I encourage to get your hands on this. Read it for yourself, not just to give to so-and-so who gets mad so quickly. I think there is a sense in which we can all see ourselves within its pages; because we all have times where we’ve over-reacted.


Order Unoffendable through your favorite Christian bookseller; or get more info at Thomas Nelson.

Thanks to Mark at HarperCollins Canada for the review copy.

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