Thinking Out Loud

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.

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October 16, 2017

Skye Jethani’s State of the Modern Church Address

Those of have heard Skye Jethani speak, be it a sermon, conference message, or podcast conversation, know him to both extremely forthright and wonderfully articulate on matters related to church and culture. He brings this gift to a new book, Immeasurable: Reflections on the Soul of Ministry in the Age of Church, Inc. released last week by Moody Press.

The book is a series of 24 short essays on various aspects of church and ministry leadership; interconnected, but presented such they can be studied in any order. While I have heard him touch on many of these before, as assembled here, much of this material was new to me.

Skye Jethani’s forté is analysis, and a major part of his analytical toolkit is a knowledge of the broader sweep of modern church history, some of this no doubt afforded by his years serving in various departments of Christianity Today, Inc. and as a local church pastor. While much ink has been spilled over the last 20 years lamenting the state of the modern church in North America, Australia/New Zealand and Western Europe, the words here are more prescriptive; a look at where the church may have lost its way presented alongside healthy doses of routes we might take to get back on track. Each essay ends with two or three “next step” questions or applications.

Some standout chapters for me — many of which were brought to life through some clever analogies — included:

1. Ambition (and motivation; always a good place to start)
3. Wastefulness (versus efficiency which can enslave us)
6. Dramas (there are three playing out in church leadership)
8. Simplicity (versus the complexity we see everywhere else, discussed in chapter 9)
9. Complexity (the longest chapter in the book; Jethani at his best)
10. Redundancy (an interesting approach to the matter of pastoral succession)
12. Illumination (another longer chapter; on sermon expectation and who might preach)
15. Platform (this chapter is gold; a look at how we confer authority in the local church)
16. Celebrity (analysis of the rise of the “Evangelical Industrial Complex”)
18. Consumers (again, I preferred the longer chapters; this one is about church choices; some of the other chapters not listed I would like to have seen fleshed out in greater detail.)

And then there was chapter 24, an even more autobiographical essay which strikes at the heart of ministry from the author’s early experiences as a hospital chaplain. A fitting ending in so many respects.

On a personal level, if I’ve learned nothing else in the last 20 years, I’ve learned that while ecclesiology is by definition the domain of pastors, books about ecclesiology are widely read by a variety of lay-people who who feel a sense of ownership in the local churches in their community. With so much reconstruction taking place in the look, feel and purpose of weekend gatherings; many want to champion these changes while others are fearful of going too far and thereby losing the plot. So while the book is being marketed more as an academic title for Bible college or classroom discussion, I think the finished product is something I would encourage many of my friends to read.

 


Read a short sample from Immeasurable at this link

Related: Skye Jethani on news and media

Related: A review of the 2012 title, With.


Photo: Skye Jethani on the weekly Phil Vischer podcast.


Thanks to Martin Smith at Parasource Distribution & Marketing for a review copy of Immeasurable.

August 15, 2017

Pastoral Communications – Part Three

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:36 am

Well, I thought it was good idea. Two ideas really.

The first was something that’s commonplace in Mainline Protestant churches in the summer but not so big among Evangelicals. I thought it would be a good fit.

The second was something that actually happened in the church parking lot rather serendipitously which I thought should be a permanent feature.

I sent it to two people on church staff. There’s a problem right there. Each probably assumed the other would reply to it. (Okay, I’m being charitable with that.)

Just suggestions. No personal agenda. No history of making this type of suggestion in any recent memory.

No reply.

We’ve written about this before here, so I don’t want to belabor the point, but shouldn’t churches be pleased when someone cares enough about the church’s programming, image, environment, etc. to write a short note? They could even send me a form letter for the wrong response as in, “Thank you for your suggestion, we’ll consider adding both books to the church library;” or “We apologize for the shortage of diapers in the nursery you experienced.”

Rather, I got silence.

Working in Christian camping, I learned that first impressions count and the camps have increased their attention to making each week’s Opening Day a big welcome both for the kids who are staying and the parents and guardians who are dropping them off. It’s not just a matter of saying ‘We’re glad you’re here;’ but actually putting some energy into it.

I thought I was on to something. I’ll share the details with you in the Spring so churches that want to have time to ramp up, though I suspect many are doing similar things already.

When a parishioner cares enough to make a suggestion, even if the idea has flaws, they should at least get an acknowledgement of their contribution.

 

August 11, 2017

Pastoral Communications – Part Two

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:00 am

On Tuesday, in Part One, we talked about the potential for misunderstanding in business communications when the writer uses emojis along with text, along with the risk of simply being too informal.

Today I want to look at the opposite situation, the pastor who doesn’t write at all. In the time it takes me to complete this article, I could probably send between 15 and 20 emails. They’re an easy way of keeping in contact with people, especially if the content is only one or two short sentences. What’s more, they’re free. That is something younger readers cannot possibly grasp; the idea every written communication involved addressing an envelope and placing a stamp on it, and if it was of any importance making a photocopy for the files. The third advantage is that they are immediate. Decide it’s what you want to say and hit send, and it’s on the recipients email server in seconds.

So where is the downside?

The Pastor Who Never Writes

The problem is it’s so easy that some people, if they are a part of email culture at all, can’t understand why the pastor doesn’t do it.

A couple of things here. First, some people don’t have email, don’t have a smart phone and are not part of the aforementioned culture of email or texting. Those people need to be connected through different means.

Second, some of you attend a megachurch where you’ve never even met your pastor face to face. He either isn’t at the door (or atrium, or patio, or what one pastor calls the crush) or you just haven’t felt the need to walk up to him and introduce yourself. You either maintain more personal connection to the church through your small group leader, or simply don’t have that type of contact.

Keep those things in mind as we continue.

The Personal Email

This would be an email sent to one recipient only. It’s less likely to happen in a megachurch environment, which begs many other questions we won’t get into here.

This is the letter that says,

  • Hey, Jennifer; it was good to see you and the kids on Sunday; hope Mark is feeling better.
  • Hey, Jason; thanks for stepping up at last minute when we needed help this week.
  • Hey, Joanne; I checked out that book you mentioned and ordered a copy.
  • Hey, James; I sent your contact info to a guy at another church who is hiring in your field right now.

It’s personal. Plus, you can even write to people whose name doesn’t start with the letter J.

The Form Letter Email

This is something any pastor (or associate pastor, or student pastor, etc.) can do, small church or megachurch. But it can still be written with a personal touch. Rough outlines might look like:

  • Dear Church Family; Wanda and I are back from our yearly vacation at the lake; we had a great time of rest with friends and family; we’re looking forward to getting into the fall schedule.
  • Dear First Assembly Family; Over the summer I’ve been reading some great books and wanted to share what I’ve learned in three of them.
  • Dear Westside Friends; We had a great mission trip this past two weeks in Peru; we’ve posted some pictures to share with you at this link; thanks for your prayers.

Not rocket science. Easy to do. Not as personal as a personal letter, but still a great way to keep in contact. (I would suggest the pastor have a distinct address for this, and budget some time for reading responses in the 2-3 days that follow the email distribution.)

So how’s it done where you worship? Do you get communications from your minister or do church emails tend to be a reminder of upcoming services, programs, seminars, or events?

August 8, 2017

Pastoral Communications – Part One

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:56 am

An article in my weekend newspaper warned business people about the casual tone to today’s communications and in particular the use of emojis.

More than ever, businesses are turning to instant messaging apps such as Slack, Hipchat and Skype to facilitate communication and collaboration. As this informal communication becomes the norm, so too do the tiny pictographic characters known as emoji.

Emoji have become so ubiquitous they have even been turned into a movie. But lawyers are increasingly encouraging companies to keep them out of their workplaces, cautioning that what a given emoji means can change depending on the context and culture in which they’re used.

Marissa Lang wrote the article for The San Francisco Chronicle adding,

Devised as a way to clarify the tone or emotion of a message, emoji can also muddle meaning and lead to workplace misunderstandings that legal experts worry could soon get someone sued.

The potential for hurt and misunderstanding in church and ministry life is the same if not greater. Some pastors eschew email, texting and Facebook altogether, while others are extremely cautious as to what they put in print. Even so, I’ve been the receiving end of pastoral communications that I am sure would have, with an extra five minutes of thought, not been sent.

Most of the church leaders I know got to be where they are because of wisdom and discretion. But it’s so easy to type a reply very quickly and hit the send button.

Before all of this, there were formal processes to correspondence. Most people in leadership had a secretary who would either take dictation — anyone remember Pittman shorthand? — or would type a handwritten script. One very successful businessman I knew well would hand-write all his communications on lined paper, and then, using the same pen, would go over each letter of each word. Every single item to be typed by his receptionist would consist of cursive writing which had been traced over a second time.

Today, many executives handle their own memos, proposals and responses. It’s easy to be too fast.

Ministers and church staff often find themselves writing first and thinking later. One particular email, noted above, left me devastated for several days. Were I to quote it, I know you would agree. Fortunately, my relationship with this pastor survived the hurt. 

The article’s primary takeaway is that emojis should not be used at work at all. They’re just too informal.

If your boss is God, you have to be held to highest standard. 


Some church emojis:

 

May 15, 2017

A Golden Age of Christian Blogging

Blogging introduces you to a worldwide collective of people you will probably never meet in this life.   Nonetheless, the online connection means that you can be a source of encouragement to many, many people. The right words, fitly spoken at the right time, can really make a difference in a person’s life.  That’s why I like this picture. The words are coming off the page to bring comfort. Everybody needs a bit of that now and then. The best things that are happening in the blogsphere aren’t always happening on the blogs themselves, but in the meta. When you get to follow-up with someone who has a particular interest. Or try to offer some direct, offline advice to someone who might appreciate a bit of a challenge.  Or know of a third-party resource that could be of great help. Or just to say, “I really don’t have a clue about your whole situation, but I want you to know someone is reading your blog who really cares.” Or offer to pray for them. To actually pray for them.

Words communicate. People are listening. You can have a part in what they hear.

~ Thinking Out Loud, September 2008

Recently I was thinking about the writers who inspired me to start doing this…many of who are no longer writing online, or are doing something completely different. After leaving comments on other blogs, I decided to start one of my own. We started on a platform called e4God, but fortunately were able to migrate the content to WordPress.

Honestly, I think this was a golden age for Christian blogging. Twitter wasn’t a force and podcasts were rare. Today, many bloggers simply post videos or podcast links or have abandoned their platform altogether in favor of the 140-character alternative. 

Travel back in time with me; except where noted these are in no particular order.

  • 22 Words — Not the blog you now know, but in those days, Abraham Piper actually confined each post to exactly 22 words.
  • Sacramentis — Sally Morganthaler’s website was a hub for people who wanted to discuss worship ideas. The church was going through a period of accelerated change, and people like Sally, Nancy Beach and Robert Weber were all speaking into that change.
  • Stuff Christians Like — The mind of Jon Acuff knew no boundaries. Think Babylon Bee for a previous decade. I think of Jon every time I’m in church and need to give someone a side hug. The blog spun off a book deal with Zondervan.
  • Stuff White Christians Like — …well, let’s be honest; there were a number of spin-offs from Jon’s blog, Stephy’s was one of them.
  • Lark News — The original Babylon Bee.
  • The Very Worst Missionary — Jamie Wright provided a missionary’s perspective on short term mission trips which many of us will never forget.
  • Fred McKinnon — What avid worship leader didn’t visit late Sunday night or midday Monday to find out what other worship leaders had posted to The Sunday Set List?
  • Puragtorio — Can someone help me remember this one? Seriously.
  • ASBO Jesus — From across the pond, Jon Birch’s website was delightfully cynical. The initials stand for Anti Social Behavior Order.
  • Flowerdust — The writer formerly known as Anne Jackson gained a huge following early on and was a reminder to us all that it was okay to be broken or wounded or both.
  • Evotional — The original blog of Mark Batterson, bestselling author and pastor of National Community Church in DC.  (When he called his first book, In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day, I thought, “That’s a real dumb title. So much for his writing career.”)
  • Letters from Camp Krusty — My first initiation into the wonderful strange world of Brant Hansen.
  • Greg Boyd — This guy had a huge influence on us. We spent endless road trips throughout the U.S. popping discs in the CD player of downloaded sermons from Woodland Hills Church on the Gospel of Luke. Great memories. “Now go out and build the kingdom!”
  • Skyebox — Skye Jethani would later play a pivotal role in my own life for which I am most grateful. Today, he’s a regular on The Phil Vischer Podcast and an important analyst and commentator on the state of Evangelicalism in North America.
  • Out of Ur — The blog of Leadership Journal at Christianity Today and for 22 months, the home of the Wednesday Link List. (See previous entry.)
  • Tall Skinny Kiwi — As I write this, Andrew Jones and the girls are heading back to Europe mid-June. His unique, ongoing story continues and he has my utmost respect and admiration for carrying on despite the loss of Debbie to complications from malaria and typhoid.
  • Donald Miller — I don’t think it was called StoryLine back then, but I can’t remember. He’s been at this a long time!
  • Bene Diction Blogs On — Investigative blogging in an era before Warren Throckmorton. But who was Bene Diction? I have a friend who claims to know and says I knew her. Wait, what? Her?
  • Naked Pastor — David Hayward migrated his blog to Patheos but then moved back to his own domain. I love his writing, but I’m sure he’s best known for the pictures: Original artwork which you can purchase.
  • Without Wax — Pete Wilson is still blogging. Back then, they were like family; I can still name all three of Pete’s boys.
  • Trevin Wax — (no relation to the above) Trevin is now more aligned with a tribe I no longer follow, but I tracked with his writing for many years.
  • Challies — Tim Challies must have been in the right place at the right time, because today his blog regularly ranks in the Top Ten Christian blog lists in the U.S. though, like myself, he is Canadian. Must reading for the neo-Calvinist set. (Tim lives just about 90 minutes from me. Sometimes in the early morning we drive by his house and root through his recycling bin.)
  • Take Your Vitamin Z — Zach Nielson’s blog had a cool title. Three years ago this month, like many others, he switched his primary focus from blogging to Twitter. 
  • Desiring God — The Pipester was a force to be reckoned with! You never actually had to read it though, because for a time, the Calvinist world faithfully re-blogged every word J.P. wrote.
  • Reformissionary — The original name for Steve McCoy’s blog. Many nights at supper we prayed for Molly.
  • DashHouse — Another Canadian, Darryl Dash now writes primarily for fellow pastors and church leaders. He left a comfortable church in the Toronto suburbs a few years back to church plant in the urban core, albeit a more upscale neighborhood.
  • Team Pyro — Note that we clustered all the Calvinist bloggers together here. These guys helped convince me that there was a type of Christ follower I wanted to be, and that tribe wasn’t it. (At this writing, the blog has been inactive for about six weeks. Don’t people need their weekly dose of Spurgeon?)
  • CenturiOn — Frank Turk from Team Pyro. (Not to be confused with apologist Frank Turek.) I have to give them credit for the excellent illustrations and images.
  • Vintage Blog— Another one from that era who is still writing; Dan Kimball aka “the guy with the pompadour haircut.” If you’re ever in Santa Cruz, look up Vintage Church.
  • Eugene Cho — Another writer who’s been at this for a long time. Korean-born Cho is an author, lead pastor of Quest Church in Seattle and founder of the charity One Day’s Wages.
  • Jesus Creed — Scot McKnight is another writer who has been faithfully at his computer producing a large number of columns each week since the world was flat. (With enough book sales, perhaps one day he’ll be able to afford the second ‘t’ in his first name.) 
  • John Shore — I tend to think of John today in terms of one particular issue, but in the early days his blog was home for all those who had gotten burned out in their church experience.
  • Michael Hyatt — Better known today for his writing on leadership issues, on building platform and on writing itself, it was his pieces on the publishing industry I enjoyed most back in the day.
  • Blog In My Own Eye — Keith Brenton was another writer who snagged a great blog title. It’s been four years now since Angi, the love of his life was taken from us; yet each day at 3:00 PM, Keith goes on Twitter to offer to pray for anyone with a need or a request.
  • Fire in my Bones — From the then-editor of Charisma Magazine, Lee Grady who still has a blog at the magazine. Right now I can’t think of a more balanced Pentecostal/Charismatic writer. (Maybe Jack Hayford, but he never blogged, did he?)
  • Monday Morning Insights — Over the years, the Wednesday Link List borrowed a number of story leads from Todd Rhoades’ blog.
  • The Idea Club — You never heard of it, right? Actually it was the original name for Cathy Lynn Grossman’s religion blog at USAToday. (Thinking Out Loud actually began as a USAToday blog as well.) An excellent religion reporter. You probably remember better from Faith and Reason. Watch for her byline where quality journalism is sold.
  • Internet Monk — Still updated daily, but sadly without its founder, the late Michael Spencer. This one resonated with a lot of people at a transitional time for the church at large.
  • Boar’s Head Tavern — Another blog Michael Spencer started. 
  • Shlog — The original name for musician Sean Groves’ blog.  
  • One Hand Clapping — Julie Clawson was an important voice in those early days. I wonder who reading this knows how the blog got its name?
  • …Help! I can’t stop…

…This ended up longer than I planned. Those were great days. Through these and other writers I got to read some great books and think about things related to God, Jesus, The Bible, Church, Evangelism, Doctrine, etc., that I otherwise might never have considered.

My life is richer because of all of you…

…So…who did I miss from that era who was big impact on you?


And now, a Best-of… moment from those early days:

March 28, 2017

When You’re Unfit to Serve at Your Church

Today’s post is a continuation of my wife’s guest post yesterday. I promised I would return to some of the issues raised to look at them objectively. So this post is a continuation of that; you really need to read it first.

1. How long does a person attend your church before they are considered for service?

Many years ago, Andy Stanley hired a Fortune 500 survey company to interview people at their church and found that in the first five weeks at NorthPoint, newcomers are already trying to “discern next steps,” and possible areas of active involvement. On the other hand, when 60’s rocker Barry McGuire came to Christ, his pastor suggested the famed composer/singer should take a seat in the back row to grow and nurture his faith — for a full year! Some say that in a small town church, “Once a visitor, always a visitor.” Where’s the balance? Of course, in my wife’s case, she wasn’t exactly a newcomer, which brings us to…

2. When someone who was a former member of your church returns, does their past experience count for anything?

Clearly, some churches expect you to jump through all the hoops as though you’d never been there before. One woman who wrote us off-the-blog put it this way, “It’s when your motives are questioned and you had thought you had enough ‘capital ‘ in years of service to be trusted…” Churches will have “Celebration Sundays” to revel in their glorious past history, but if someone who is part of that history should return, that experience, even if it involved some tough pioneering, isn’t always respected. For my wife to be classed as a “visitor” was simply equestrian feces. Which brings us to…

3. Is someone who has only been part of a church for ten years truly fit to reprimand, discipline or judge someone whose history with that church goes back twenty years?

Part of the problem in the body of Christ is that we really don’t know each other. But it gets even more complicated when people who have given years of service are being judged — or spiritually abused — by people who, despite their convictions otherwise, don’t know all there is to know. (Or worse, have been given short ‘debriefs’ by a departing pastor about individuals in the church, not unlike those student files kept in the school office.) Sometimes, this problem manifests itself where a church member finds themselves being rebuked by someone half their age. There may be Biblical precedent for that, but it’s still unnatural, and can be avoided by appointing a different mediator. Which brings us to…

4. Are the elders in your church really “elder,” or were they chosen by some other standard?

Typically, in many churches today board members are people who are successful at their vocation. Is your insurance business or car dealership doing well? Expect to be asked. Ditto teachers. But some churches really need to bring back the concept of elders and deacons. (See the story in Acts 7 on the choosing of Stephen for the nuances.) Some elders are on the church board for the wrong reasons, like, for example, their wives talked them into it. Some elders truly “represent” the congregation in a democratic sense, while others see themselves as a sub-priestly class of elite members. Again, another comment received in response to the first article; “…as I think you sense, the leadership there is like a team of soldiers walking through enemy territory with the rank and file members and adherents being ‘the enemy!’ It feels as if there are the leaders and then there are the rest of us — the leaders being a select group of others who think alike and run the show.” Which brings us to…

5. What about Church leaders who will look you right in the eye and lie through their teeth? Is that ever justified?

The conversation my wife had seven years ago revealed a number of statements which, at the very least, were absolute non sequiturs. (I’m being polite.) They told her that she was unfit to lead because people in the congregation didn’t know her, yet just three weeks before that, I had to ask four different people to find out the name of the woman who had led worship that week. (See also the footnote to yesterday’s article; turns out they brought in a guest less than a month later.) My wife was baptized there. Our children were dedicated there. Her husband served on paid staff there for four years. And nobody would know her? Maybe what this is all about is really…

6. Is the elders’ board of a church really where the heart of ministry is taking place? Or even in touch with the real ministry happening?

I doubt that. In fact, if you really want to see corporate life change (aka spiritual formation) take place and they ask you to serve on an administrative board, run as fast you can in the other direction. “Run, Forrest, run!” Just wanting to serve on one of these boards is like wanting to run for public office. And being involved in service is just as political, where you do everything you can to keep your reputation ahead of actual service. And just as in politics, these people will do everything they can to keep people off the stage who might, through raw authenticity and transparency, challenge the carefully developed status quo. People like that are, simply put, a threat. This is not where powerful, fruitful, organic ministry is taking place. Which bring us to…

7. Do people in your church get hurt or wounded or abused?

My wife was told that placing herself in profile ministry meant she was leaving herself open to hurt. Was this an admission on their part that this is a church that hurts people? The church leadership should bear ultimate responsibility for any hurting, wounding or abusing that takes place within their jurisdiction. Furthermore they should be strive to make their church a place of healing; a place of grace. Decisions taken at the board level which are simply leading to further hurt should be considered a worst-case scenario. But this is likely to happen because…

8. Can a church leader be doing “the Lord’s work” and at the same time be about “the Devil’s business?”

Absolutely. People are flawed. They are going to get caught up in what “may seem right,” but actually take perverse delight in stabbing someone and then twisting the knife. Any high school student who has studied Shakespeare knows enough about human nature to know that these personality types are out there. (As Mark Antony says, “These are honorable men.”) It’s all about building their kingdom and especially their desire for power and control. What my wife was subjected to in that hour was simply not of God. So the obvious question is…

9. Why do we keep coming back?

Small(er) towns simply don’t offer people the advantage of packing up and moving to another church. The mix of evangelism, teaching, worship, doctrinal slant, demographic composition; combined with an individual’s history in a place; plus a blind optimism that someday things will improve; all these things sometimes mean that there is literally nowhere else to go. (And trust us, we’ve done the church plant thing, too; it was a great experience; but the plants died or got put on hiatus for other reasons.) Besides, this church is our HOME. Figuratively, those are our kids’ height marks on the back of the door; that’s our kids’ artwork on the refrigerator; not so figuratively, that’s the corner where I prayed with that woman for a dramatic healing; that’s the song my wife taught the congregation just a few years ago; that’s the weekly group that we started.

10. Is it possible that it’s just time to step aside and let another generation have their turn?

If that’s the case, the people working so hard to evict us from active ministry really have only four or five years left themselves. And they are perpetuating a system which will truly come back to haunt them. (‘What goes around…’) But then again, many of the people doing worship service leadership in Canada are much older than their U.S. counterparts. So while a part of me is lamenting my wife’s loss of opportunity to do the thing she loves, and the thing she’s most gifted to do, I’m watching the horizon for that young, unshaven guy with a guitar over his shoulder who is going to bounce this crowd off the stage and, with his peers, bounce this particular collection of elders out of the church boardroom.

I guess that sounds a bit mean spirited, but honestly, things can only get better. Things can only improve. Of course I’ve said that before…

Related post: April 4, 2008 – Growing Deep RootsSometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name… and they’re always glad you came.

Related post: May 1, 2008 – Choosing a Church – This post is where I came up with the phrase, “a place where you can be comfortable being broken.” and the footnote, “When you have true spiritual family in various places, they don’t mind it when you crash!”


March 27, 2017

Loss of Church Leadership Position is Like a Death

It’s now been seven years. Sometimes when you lose a relationship with a church it’s like a death in the family. My wife and I have been through this with respect to one particular church both individually and collectively, but because of our long history with the place, seven years ago she went back for another final run at it, which means that this death for us has been somewhat recurring, much like the plot of The Terminator.

Much of the bridge burning took place on Thursday, March 4th, 2010 at a meeting my wife was summoned to attend in response to a request to have her volunteer position reinstated. Nearly a full fortnight later, she finally committed her thoughts to writing on her blog. The day after she allowed me to run this at Thinking Out Loud, I came back the next day with what I felt was an objective discussion of some of the other larger issues her meeting raised. That will appear here tomorrow.


By Ruth Wilkinson

I’m reading a book right now called Introverts in The Church by Adam S. McHugh. McHugh is a pastor and a self identified introvert who has struggled with the American-extrovert personality of so much of the Church.

It’s a very cool read for someone like myself. We’ve grown up in the church being told, explicitly and implicitly, that to be introverted is at best a character flaw and at worst a sin.

It’s refreshing to read a book that takes us seriously, as a group of people whose brains are hardwired differently from those of the majority, with strengths and weaknesses, beauty and pitfalls.

Especially after the latest chapter in my adventures with the churchIusedtogoto.

I used to be a volunteer worship team leader there and got fired by a pastor with whom I’d had some philosophical differences. He and I are friends again, both of us now being ex- of the aforementioned church.

But at the time, and since, I’ve mourned the loss of that ministry. Leading worship in a congregation is something I love love love doing. I told someone lately that losing it was like losing a finger. Especially since it ended so abruptly with no chance to say goodbye.

So I took a risk recently. I got in touch with the people at the churchIusedtogoto who are in charge of these things and asked them whether I could come back one time. Just once, to have a chance to stand in that space once more, to lead worship with a bunch of people I care about, and to close the door for myself.

They said they wanted to have a meeting and “discuss this.” Which is never good.

But I said “OK,” and one evening the three of us sat down to “discuss this.”

I wasn’t optimistic. I’ve known enough people who’ve been alienated from churches to know that you just don’t try to go back. You just don’t. Because it hurts.

One time a few years ago, I got a call from a woman who’s the wife of a former pastor of another church in town. Their time there had ended very stressfully and he’d been fired. But she had founded the local chapter of a national prayer group and they were having their annual shindig. Guess where. She couldn’t bring herself to walk into that building alone after what they’d been through and just wanted somebody to go with her. I said sure. She met me in the parking lot and we went in together. Those kinds of forays are tremendously difficult for the wounded.

Lately I’ve heard a couple of preachers say that “You don’t have to forgive a church that hurt you. You have to forgive the particular individuals in the church who hurt you.”

They’re wrong. Completely wrong.

Anyway, my meeting at the churchIusedtogoto was cordial. The answer was no. Or rather, “Maybe someday.”

Maybe someday. These are obviously people who’ve never read Proverbs 13:12.

The condition they set on the “maybe” was this: That there are people at the churchIusedtogoto who don’t know who I am. People who would wonder, if they saw me at the piano, “Who is that?” And their policy is that “We don’t have guest worship leaders.”

That’s it. That’s the reason. Not that I’ve failed morally. Not that I’m a bad example. Not that I’m incompetent or dangerous. Not that I’m a communist, or a heretic, or I dress funny. Just that somebody might not know who I am.

And their solution to this “problem” was that I should attend the church regularly, spend time after the services talking to people, shaking hands, chatting, getting to know folks and to be known.

Then, once I’d built these “relationships”, then “maybe someday.”

As I said, I’m an introvert. I think about things. I use my brain to ask myself questions. People say things and I actually listen, and then give them thought.

I thought about this. And decided it was bumph.

After a few days, I wrote them back. In part:

I respect your answer, and won’t pursue the question anymore, in spite of the fact that I really don’t believe I was asking for much. Just one Sunday.

But your reason for saying no was so absurd. There are people there who don’t know me. You don’t have guest worship leaders.

All through school, children show up in the morning, occasionally to discover that they have a substitute teacher. People turn on the Tonight Show to find that the host is away and there is a guest host. The evening news anchor goes away for a few days and his seat is filled by a guest anchor. Just the other week, you had a guest speaker as churches do all the time.

And you’d ask me to believe that your congregation is so simple minded that they wouldn’t be able to cope with a guest worship leader. It’s almost funny, if it weren’t pathetic.

I don’t know what you think you’re protecting them from, but if you treat your congregation like simpletons, don’t expect them to challenge themselves.

Not my most diplomatic, but I figured, hell, the bridge is on fire. What have I got to lose?

(Yes, I know I said hell. See above.)

There might be a few things at play in their response.

First, this is a church that had a burst of progressiveness in the 80’s and then just stopped. Since then the leadership has become dominated by policy wonks who seem to be always looking for one more loose end to tie down.

Second, we ‘worship leaders’ have been done a grave disservice over the last couple of decades by being given an exaggerated sense of our own importance. We’re told that we’re ‘leading people into God’s presence’, that we’re ‘temple musicians’ and stuff like that. Rather than that we are just one part of the body of Christ, whose diverse giftings are all of equal value and sacredness.

Which is all another post for another blog.

But reading McHugh’s book has given me the language to better define the vehemence of part of my antipathy to their reasoning.

McHugh points out that, since we introverts usually struggle with social interaction, we find our ways into community by different paths than extroverts and normal people do.

He makes me smile when he describes the hellishness of “unstructured social events”, and writes of a man who leaves church a few minutes before the service ends to avoid “the agony of the fellowship hour”. I love that phrase. It warms the cockles of my contemplative heart.

Those of us who can’t function in the schmooze and chat world of North American evangelicalism connect with their churches through the roles they find to fill. Having a place to step into when you get there is a tremendously valuable thing. It’s a piece of ground from which to meet just one or two people at a time, to find like minded friends and to, yes, build real relationships, not ersatz hi-how-are-you-fine ones.

To insist that one of us has to run the gauntlet of coffee time in order to reach that place, is cruel and unusual punishment. Like telling you that you have to park your car a mile downhill from your house. If you want to go home at the end of the day, you have to sweat for it.

Screw that. Guess I’ll have to make do with one less finger.

Which might be just as well.


To this day, I still get comments from people as to how much they appreciated Ruth’s worship ministry in that church. I may be biased, but it was awesome. Vast song selection. Custom made video clips. Dramatic readings. Times of bold proclamation and times of deep introspection.

Some even go so far to ask if she might consider a reprise of that role. Without going into detail, I tell them to contact the church with that suggestion.

Since the article appeared, the wounds simply have not healed. At the center of this was one particular individual who is otherwise greatly admired and respected by the people of that church. In hindsight — and we’ll get to this tomorrow — what he did at that meeting at night constituted spiritual abuse, not to mention certain aspects where we now know he was lying through his teeth. He continues in a leadership role that leaves me totally mystified.

There was another change of pastoral leadership after this was written and on hearing the full story the new pastor basically said, “He would never do anything like that.” In addition to what we’ve already had to deal with, I’ve now had to suffer the loss of credibility for attempting to defend my wife’s version of the events. 

Finally… saving the best (or worst) for last… Not more than three weeks later they had a guest worship leader. A recording artist who was also doing a worship workshop with them that weekend.  

It had to have already been booked at the time she was told they don’t bring in guests.

March 10, 2017

House Party: Barbecue, Pool, a Movie, and “We’re having a guest preacher.”

It’s a summer weekend. You invite a few friends over to use the pool, enjoy a barbecue, and watch a movie on DVD. Oh, and you’ve also invited a preacher who will sit everyone down in the living room for a 40 minute sermon. Wait, what? Wouldn’t an Amway Ambush be better than listening to a sermon?

While your swim, burger, and film night might include comfortable chairs, popcorn, refreshments, etc. in 2017, inviting a preacher might have been the equivalent type of party in the 18th century.

Victorian ParlourWhile reading 7 Men and the Secret of Their Greatness by Eric Metaxas a few years ago, I encountered the term parlor preaching, or if you prefer, the more Anglicized spelling, parlour preaching. Apparently William Wilberforce’s family would have John Newton over for the evening as a guest speaker. If magicians can do parlor tricks, I suppose pastors can parlor preach.

A short trip to a few search engines later, I am not a whole lot wiser on this subject. How widespread was this type of social event? Was it the province of the aristocracy or upper class, or could anyone commission the pastor for a thousand words of exegesis and exhortation?

Though it seems to harken back to a long bygone era, I love the concept. I just can’t see anyone pulling this off successfully today, especially if you get the kind of preacher whose voice raises when he gets passionate. The sermon, as an art form is slowly fading. Rhetoric in general is getting lost in a world of txt msgs and 140-character Tweets. Most party invitees don’t want to arrive at your home only to find they’re at church.

With the absence of information we have to do some guessing. My money’s on this phenomenon as being more church service than small group, but as one-off event. A theological education was highly prized and respected, so the type of interactive format we enjoy in small groups wouldn’t be as likely to occur. You certainly would never offer an alternative view and you might not feel comfortable asking a question, either. At best, you’d save it until afterwards when tea was served.

But it could have resembled house church. There would be a piano in the parlor (aka ‘front room’ or what we would call the ‘living room’) so possibly there could be some singing, with the latest worship songs being transmitted from place to place via printed sheet music (no doubt, CCLI song #5) followed by something the preacher had prepared. Start time and dress would be less formal than Sundays and probably children (if present) would be free to sit on the carpet.

Again, I’m making all this up because there is very little corroboration online for this. If you know differently, please fill the rest of us in.

We do this today, sometimes inviting friends over to watch a sermon podcast, though we have the freedom of hitting the pause button. Today, we don’t expect our pastors to be suburban circuit-riders, in fact pastoral home visitation in general is going extinct, a topic for another article, I suppose.

Still, I would love to travel back in time to be part of one of those informal house meetings; a kind of house concert with a spiritual orator instead of a singer. I’ll bet the preaching would be first-class.

January 3, 2017

Updating the Classics

Of the writing of books, it would seem there is no end. I know… I should copyright that sentence. But any observer of Christian publishing knows that the new year will bring thousands of new titles. But perhaps we need a few old books. We need their wisdom, but we need them in language we can understand.

A few years ago I made this suggestion. A few days ago, I decided to put my money where my mouth is and see how hard or how easy it is to do this.

First the challenge. This appeared in January, 2010…

Keith Green

In the early 1980s before his death in 1982, contemporary Christian singer Keith Green was publishing the monthly Last Days Newsletter in which, among other articles, he was translating a number of classic sermons and shorter works into modern English.

James Reimann, a Christian bookstore owner, took a look at the classic devotional My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers, and decided to present this rich, quality material in a way that his customers would understand it. The updated edition was published in 1992 and now outsells the original.

However, events of this type are rare. Some bloggers re-post the works of Charles Spurgeon on a regular basis, but if this material is so vital to Christian living, why not update the text?

Jarret Stevens gave us The Deity Formerly Known as God, an update of J. B. Phillips’ Your God Is Too Small, written for the next generation with the addition of bold typefaces and illustrations. When you have such a good base text to begin with, your work can’t help have value.

As a blogger, I’m often told how eloquent a writer I am, but the truth is that while I read several books per month, I struggle with older writing styles. I see the value in Spurgeon, Charles Wesley, E.M. Bounds and Andrew Murray, but I’m unlikely to impulsively grab one off the shelves unless it pertains to a particular topic of interest.

The Christian book industry needs to be encouraging more modern renderings of some of these great books. The authors’ take on scripture is often different and deeper from what modern writers extrapolate from the same scriptures. We need to connect with some of these classic interpretations before they are lost to a changing English language.

So on to the execution. This was written in January 2017 and was easier said than done; trying to get inside the author’s word usage took about three times longer than I expected. (By the way, Matthew Henry would have loved bullet points, numbered lists, bold face type, headings and subheadings, etc.) This appeared at C201 yesterday, and had to be finished in a hurry…

…The pastor in the church we visited on New Year’s Day started 2017 with a message on sin. Although he used literally dozens of scripture references — many from Romans — this passage in Isaiah 30 (12-14 in particular) was the only verse for which he prepared a slide for us to read. Many people just want to hear things that will make them feel good. Elsewhere, we read about people having “itching ears.”

Today, we’re going to contrast the contemporary language of The Message with the more formal commentary of Matthew Henry. However, where you see italics, I’ve used more modern expressions. Everything from this point on is Matthew Henry as amended.

So, go now and write all this down.
Put it in a book
So that the record will be there
to instruct the coming generations,
Because this is a rebel generation,
a people who lie,
A people unwilling to listen
to anything God tells them.
They tell their spiritual leaders,
“Don’t bother us with irrelevancies.”
They tell their preachers,
“Don’t waste our time on impracticalities.
Tell us what makes us feel better.
Don’t bore us with obsolete religion.
That stuff means nothing to us.
Quit hounding us with The Holy of Israel.” – Isaiah 30: 8-11 (MSG)

They forbade the prophets to speak to them in God’s name, and to deal faithfully with them.

They set themselves so violently against the prophets to hinder them from preaching, or at least from dealing plainly with them in their preaching, did so banter them and browbeat them, that they did in effect say to the seers, See not. They had the light, but they loved darkness rather. It was their privilege that they had seers among them, but they did what they could to put out their eyes — that they had prophets among them, but they did what they could to stop their mouths; for they tormented them in their wicked ways, Rev. 11:10.

Those that silence good ministers, and discountenance good preaching, are justly counted, and called, rebels against God. See what it was in the prophets’ preaching with which they found themselves aggrieved.

  1. The prophets told them of their faults, and warned them of their misery and danger by reason of sin, and they couldn’t take it. They must speak to them warm and fuzzy things, must flatter them in their sins, and say that they did well, and there was no harm, no danger, in the course of life they lived in. No matter how true something is, if it be not easy to listen to, they will not hear it. But if it be agrees with the good opinion they have of themselves, and will confirm them in that, even though it be very false and ever so undeserved, they will have it prophesied to them. Those deserve to be deceived that desire to be so.
  2. The prophets stopped them in their sinful pursuits, and stood in their way like the angel in Balaam’s road, with the sword of God’s wrath drawn in their hand; so that they could not proceed without terror. And this they took as a great insult. When they continued to desire the opposite of what the prophets were saying they in effect said to the prophets, “Get you out of the way, turn aside out of the paths. What do you do in our way? Cannot you leave us alone to do as we please?” Those have their hearts fully set in them to do evil that bid these accountability monitors to get out of their way. Be quiet now before I have you killed! 2 Chron. 25:16.
  3. The prophets were continually telling them of the Holy One of Israel, what an enemy he is to sin ad how severely he will judge sinners; and this they couldn’t listen to. Both the thing itself and the expression of it were too serious for them; and therefore, if the prophets will speak to them, they will determine that they will not call God the Holy One of Israel; for God’s holiness is that attribute which wicked people most of all dread.

Now what is the doom passed upon them for this?

Therefore, The Holy of Israel says this:
“Because you scorn this Message,
Preferring to live by injustice
and shape your lives on lies,
This perverse way of life
will be like a towering, badly built wall
That slowly, slowly tilts and shifts,
and then one day, without warning, collapses—
Smashed to bits like a piece of pottery,
smashed beyond recognition or repair,
Useless, a pile of debris
to be swept up and thrown in the trash.”

Observe,

  1. Who it is that gives judgment upon them? This is what the Holy One of Israel says. The prophet uses the very title they find so objectionable. Faithful ministers will not be driven from using such expressions as are needed to awaken sinners, though they be displeasing. We must tell men that God is the Holy One of Israel, and so they will find him, whether they will hear or whether they will forbear.
  2. What is the basis of the judgment? Because they despise this word—whether, in general, every word that the prophets said to them, or this word in particular, which declares God to be the Holy One of Israel: “they despise this, and will neither make it their fear, to respect it, nor make it their hope, to put any confidence in it; but, rather than they will submit to the Holy One of Israel, they will continue in oppression and perverseness, in the wealth they have collected and the interest they have made by fraud and violence, or in the sinful methods they have taken for their own security, in contradiction to God and his will. On these they depend, and therefore it is just that they should fall.”
  3. What is the judgment is that is passed on them? “This sinfulness will be to you as a wall ready to fall. This confidence of yours will be like a house built upon the sand, which will fall in the storm and bury the builder in the ruins of it. Your contempt of that word of God which you might build upon will make every thing else you trust like a wall that bulges out, which, if any weight be laid upon it, comes down, nay, which often sinks with its own weight.”

The ruin they are bringing upon themselves is,

  1. Surprising: The breaking shall come suddenly, at an instant, when they do not expect it, which will make it the more frightful, and when they are not prepared or provided for it, which will make it the more fatal.
  2. Total and irreversible: “Your and all you hold dear shall be not only weak as the potter’s clay (Isa. 29:16), but broken to pieces as the potter’s vessel. He that has the rod of iron shall break it (Ps. 2:9) and he will not spare, will not have any regard to it, nor be in care to preserve or keep whole any part of it. But, when once it is broken so as to be unfit for use, let it be destroyed, let it be crushed, all to pieces, so that there may not remain one shred big enough to take up a little fire or water”—two things we have daily need of, and which poor people commonly get in a piece of a broken pitcher. They shall not only be as a leaning fence (Ps. 62:3), but as a broken mug or glass, which is good for nothing, nor can ever be made whole again.
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