Thinking Out Loud

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.

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November 13, 2017

Sermons that Communicate

Filed under: Christianity, Church, ministry — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:13 am

I had the privilege of working as a Worship Director under four different pastors, but only one of these let me in on his sermon crafting process. It began with a mostly blank form with a line for the date and space in the top 1/6th of the page to answer the question, “Where do you want to take them today?”

It thereby highly focused his attention on what it was that would fill the rest of the page. More detailed notes followed later on other pieces of paper.

Much of public speaking is modeled for us. The job of preacher is similar to the job of school teacher. These occupations are self-perpetuating. That’s why it’s easy for kids to “play school” in the summertime, and Christian kids can equally “play church.” We’ve seen the job played out for us on a regular basis and can  emulate the key moves.

The problem is that just because you are a good speaker, doesn’t mean you are a good communicator. Furthermore, I would argue that being highly skilled or highly polished at the former can actually work against the latter; it can stand in the way of being an effective communicator.

Another of the pastors I worked with and still get to hear on a regular basis is a very gifted in the art of sermon crafting. But at several junctures in the sermon, he will allow himself to deviate from his notes, or what I call going “off road.” Whether or not you call it Holy Spirit inspired — and I would contend that most definitely is the case — he either thinks of something that could still be added to the notes, or you could phrase it that he is still crafting the sermon to perfection even as he stands in the pulpit. There are no PowerPoint graphics that align with what he’s saying, but these are often the sermon highlights.

I also am a fan of conversational delivery; where the pastor is working from very rough, point-form outlines and then delivers the message in a style that suggests he’s talking to me, not simply reading his notes.

Don’t get me wrong. I want there to be sermon preparation. I want to know context; I want to hear related texts mentioned; I want to know he or she did the necessary word study.

But what do I do with it all? How does it impact the week I’m facing? How do leave the building changed and inspired?

To repeat, so much of what we call good preaching is too smooth; it’s too slick; it’s too polished. It’s so rhetorical minded that it’s no relational good.  It’s possible to be a great speaker but actually be a terrible communicator.

 


If you didn’t catch it last week, be sure to read Thursday’s article on the related art of concision, the gift of being able to keep things short.

January 11, 2015

On The Sunday Lunch Menu: Roast Preacher

roast-preacherOne of our pastor experiences was really strange. One never knew truly what the guy was thinking, which means the drive home from the morning service was always filled with differing opinions as we tried to dissect the various points. One time, he placed a coffee maker on the podium suggesting, “God is the water;” and concluding with, “We are the beans.” This got us singing the chorus from “We Are The World” all the way home, substituting “beans” for “world.”

On the other hand, we attended another church where the pastor clearly had a double portion of the gift of preaching. However, never once did we discuss anything he said in the car heading home. He had said it all. Perfectly. With nothing to add.

In hindsight, I’m not sure which is to be preferred. I actually like discussing the sermon in the car on the way home, especially when there is a point of doctrine that was controversial, or the use of an analogy — such as the coffee maker one — that is a bit rough around the edges. I often think what I might have done with the same passage, or how a particular point might have made more clearly. I am not ashamed of this at all, in fact I wish I had kept a journal or notebook solely for the purpose of recording when particular sermons might have served as a springboard to another idea based on the same text.

On the other hand though, on many of those drives home, there were a couple of sets of little ears in the back seat. Little ears don’t understand the difference between a critique and a criticism. The difference between unhelpful criticism and constructive criticism. The difference between not liking what someone said versus not liking them as a person. So one has to be careful.

The problem arises when adults are equally lacking in understanding the distinction. If you are a pastor, know that I can violently disagree with something you said, but it doesn’t mean I don’t like you and it doesn’t mean I won’t love everything you say the following week. Unfortunately, people tend to take things far too personally. (It was once said of me, in reference to a particular pastor, “He can’t stand that guy.” Seriously. That was their takeaway. Simply wasn’t true.)

Furthermore, I know some pastors who would be thrilled to think that people were discussing their sermons in the car on the way home, or over dinner. Better that than forgetting them the minute they leave the building. Better heated engagement of the topic or text than apathy.

But maybe not so much in the actual church building, in earshot of others. Jon Acuff makes that quite clear in a 2009 Stuff Christians Like post. In keeping with the spirit of “Roast Preacher,” I wouldn’t necessarily give this particular post a “10” or even a “9,” but the set up was positively brilliant:

Two weeks ago at church, on my way to pick up my kids after service, the guy behind me said, “It was entertaining I guess, but that didn’t feel like church at all.”

I immediately turned around and was about to hit him with my copy of the English Standard Version of the Bible, which I’ve been told leaves bruises that are 14% closer to the original intent of the Hebrew, but he threw up the gang sign for “First Time Visitor.” I backed off instantly. If there’s one group of people you can’t strike with a Bible at church, it is first time visitors. Pastors really frown on that.

So instead, I just glared at him with a look that said, “You enjoy that first time visitor status, because next week, it’s gone. Soon you’ll just be a second time visitor and there’s not a gift basket that comes with that.” Then I backed away slowly, keeping my eyes on him.

It didn’t happen exactly that way, but I did hear someone complaining and it made me sad. …

 

October 10, 2014

The Clergy Caste and the Laity Caste

I originally posted this two years ago. I think I was somewhat angry when I wrote it. Sometimes that makes for the best blog items. Returning to it two years later, the anger is now more of a lament that things are the way they are in the church.

We had the option of staying in Toronto where we attended a church where people in leadership share the Sunday morning preaching responsibilities. But we felt God was calling us to a small town that didn’t have a church of that denominational stripe, or one where shared teaching was practiced. For years and years I had no regrets. But then, about 2-3 years ago, the regret just started pouring out of me.

I also think of how having to prepare weekly messages would have developed my Christian walk. Sometimes, I admit, I need to be forced into situations that create the fertile ground for spiritual growth. Mind you, I did do some messages back in the day that were terrible. It kinda works both ways…

…Anyway, what follows is what I wrote exactly 24 months ago. I believe in the concept of the church “setting people apart” for vocational ministry. I just don’t think that means they can’t share teaching/preaching responsibilities…


When
it comes to the availability of information and resources, these are interesting times. There is nothing that can’t be accessed, and as a member of the laity, it is easy to ‘pig out’ on all manner of commentaries and Bible reference materials that heretofore tended to be the exclusive property of those in vocational ministry.

Nowadays in any given denomination, it’s easy to find pastors who can’t preach their way out of a wet paper bag, and to hear as many stories about an absolutely phenomenal adult Sunday School Bible teacher with great gifting, who works the rest of the week on a automotive assembly line or is a cattle farmer, or sells restaurant supplies.

This week I was hoping to connect with a pastor friend, who mentioned that he had come down with somethingitis. I fired off an email joking, “Let me know if you need me to preach.”

Well, not so joking. I’ve actually done the Sunday morning message in his church many years prior to his arrival here, and for that matter, at six other area churches.

He ended up not being able to preach, as no doubt his somethingitis turned into otheritis. A mutual friend — who happens to be ordained — jumped in and filled the gap. I just chanced to hear about this yesterday afternoon on my way to the bank. After cashing a check, I walked back to my car and a strange thought hit me, “You’re not going to get those opportunities in the future because you’re not part of the clergy class, they are the ones who have the hidden secrets.

You know the hidden secrets, right? Well, actually you don’t; that’s the point. That extra bit of information that does not exist on line; the things passed on when you reach your 32nd degree ordination. The mysteries of faith that cannot be revealed to the common masses. The things not even known to that eloquent adult elective teacher.

That’s why the great chasm between the laity and clergy exists. There are some things simply too great — too lofty — to pass on to the rest of us. And that’s why the next time your church offers to help people ‘develop their gift,’ they do not include you in that gift-development if your gift happens to look terribly similar to their gift.

October 16, 2012

The Continuing Disparity Between Clergy and Laity

When it comes to the availability of information and resources, these are interesting times. There is nothing that can’t be accessed, and as a member of the laity, it is easy to ‘pig out’ on all manner of commentaries and Bible reference materials that heretofore tended to be the exclusive property of those in vocational ministry.

Nowadays in any given denomination, it’s easy to find pastors who can’t preach their way out of a wet paper bag, and to hear as many stories about an absolutely phenomenal adult Sunday School Bible teacher with great gifting, who works the rest of the week on a automotive assembly line or is a cattle farmer, or sells restaurant supplies.

This week I was hoping to connect with a pastor friend, who mentioned that he had come down with somethingitis. I fired off an email joking, “Let me know if you need me to preach.”

Well, not so joking. I’ve actually done the Sunday morning message in his church many years prior to his arrival here, and for that matter, at six other area churches.

He ended up not being able to preach, as no doubt his somethingitis turned into otheritis. A mutual friend — who happens to be ordained — jumped in and filled the gap. I just chanced to hear about this yesterday afternoon on my way to the bank. After cashing a check, I walked back to my car and a strange thought hit me, “You’re not going to get those opportunities in the future because you’re not part of the clergy class, they are the ones who have the hidden secrets.

You know the hidden secrets, right? Well, actually you don’t; that’s the point. That extra bit of information that does not exist on line; the things passed on when you reach your 32nd degree ordination. The mysteries of faith that cannot be revealed to the common masses. The things not even known to that eloquent adult elective teacher.

That’s why the great chasm between the laity and clergy exists. There are some things simply too great — too lofty — to pass on to the rest of us. And that’s why the next time your church offers to help people ‘develop their gift,’ they do not include you in that gift-development if your gift happens to look terribly similar to their gift.

March 13, 2012

Thoughts on Church Life (2) – Giftedness

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

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

The woman in the store thought we looked familiar.

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

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

“He was a great orator;” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

Guess I’m not a good orator.

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