Thinking Out Loud

March 11, 2019

The Sermon He Did Not Want to Preach

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:43 am

The hints to Pastor Mitchell Norris started out subtly enough.

“Why don’t we do a series on “The Seven Deadly Sins,” pastor?”

He looked at the list: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. After the last almost-complete shutout of volunteers for the last church work day, he felt that starting at the end of the list with sloth would be a good series opener.

But then, the requests got more specific.

“We should have a sermon on gluttony.”

Maybe they weren’t quite that bold. They’d begin with a reference to the latest health reports on how we’re not eating as healthy as we could; or how American life expectancy is dropping for the first time; or how we have so much food compared to the rest of the world and we could solve world hunger by sharing it. Some offered more detailed statistics.

But then they’d pitch the sermon on gluttony.

Pastor Mitchell especially liked this pitch: “Nowhere in the Bible does it say we’re supposed to close our eyes to pray, but there are over one hundred references to gluttony.”

He decided to spare himself the bother of fact-checking that stat.

Why would the church be so concerned about this particular topic?

It was all about Renn.

Renn Taylor had been involved in the church for several decades. When Mitchell Norris arrived, Renn weighed 165 pounds soaking wet. He was 3rd base on the church softball team, and on his turn at bat his home runs came from his speed running the bases, not the depth of the hit.

And now, many trips to Cracker Barrel and Chick-fil-A later, he was clocking in around 285 pounds. Word was it wasn’t genetic. Renn loved a good meal. If there was an underlying psychological reason for the gorging, Renn would have to want to talk to the pastor — or someone — about it. He wasn’t going say a word, nor did he feel he needed to. Renn was a smart man who knew that his former set of clothing was no longer fitting.

People joked about it with Renn, they invited him and his wife over for some ‘health food,’ they anonymously sent him diet books in the mail, they even offered to make him a doctor’s appointment.

They were obsessed.

They were obsessed with Renn’s weight gain.

And as for Pastor Mitchell Norris, he felt there were more important things in congregational life to deal with than a topic which might only apply directly to about a half dozen people, but would be perceived as applying to one individual in particular.

As long as Renn would be in the audience — and he rarely missed a Sunday — Pastor Norris was not about to give that sermon, or do the series on “The Seven Deadly Sins” for that matter. “I cannot;” he told his wife, “do a sermon on overeating, binge eating, weight problems, or anything else on that subject as long as Renn is sitting in the audience. He’ll see right through it.”

The more he refused to address the issue, the more people in the church dug in their heels.

“Gluttony is a sin;” they reminded the pastor.

“So is materialism;” he would reply.

Or on another day, “There’s sin in the camp;” they would affirm. “We can’t simply tolerate sin within the walls of our church family.”

To which Pastor Norris would reply, “And what exactly is sin?”

To that question, responses varied. Some attempted a sound theological answer, and a few got it right, but for most, sin was Renn Taylor, spotted last Friday having a cheeseburger at the Waffle House next to the freeway.

So Pastor Mitchell Norris preached a series, but not the one they were expecting. He pulled a sermon out of the files about worrying about the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye when all along you’ve got a plank in your own.

Then he spoke about the type of people who Jesus befriended, and how none of us really deserve to be part of his inner circle, but when he lets us in, it’s an act of grace.

The week after that one, he spoke about Peter’s preoccupation over what might happen to the Apostle John and how Jesus tells him it’s really ‘none of your business.’

When it was over, they told him it was some of his best preaching. That he seemed to have a fresh passion and urgency about his preaching.

He thanked them.

And then, in the week that followed, at different times and places, they asked him if he would consider doing a sermon on gluttony.

 

 

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January 26, 2019

Preachers and Evangelists: Then and Now

Increasingly, Twitter is becoming a long-form medium. It’s not just the 140 vs. 280 character thing, but with the use of threads, writers can present rather extensive essays.

Every once in awhile I find threads which I think are worthy of being preserved somewhere more permanent. The writer may have envisioned something temporary — a kind of Snapchat prose — but the words deserve greater attention. So as we’ve done before — Skye Jethani, Mark Clark, Sheila Wray Gregoire, etc. — we want to introduce you to a voice which is new here.

Dr. Steve Bezner has been the Senior Pastor of Houston Northwest Church (Houston NW) since January 2013. Steve is married to Joy, and they have two teenage sons—Ben and Andrew. This originally appeared on his Twitter account on January 24th.


by Steve Bezner

Here’s a surprising tidbit: Paul apparently was not very impressive in person. His speaking ability was just so-so. His physical appearance was nothing special. And he had some sort of physical ailment. (I’m guessing weak eyes based on context clues.) But it gets worse.

There were other, more dynamic leaders in the ancient church who would speak at the churches Paul started after Paul left town. And the people would be amazed at their abilities–their charisma, smooth words, and physical appearance.

And those churches would abandon Paul.

Paul refers to these individuals sarcastically as “super-apostles” in 2 Corinthians. They apparently also went to Galatia, as they were working to preach a different gospel from the one Paul had brought. Some even tried to follow Peter or Apollos (friends of Paul’s) over Paul.

Paul didn’t have the best appearance. Or speech. Or personality. He was quiet and meek. And the people in the early churches preferred the loud apostle. The strong apostle. The one that could “hold a room.” The one that was impressive.

Sound familiar?

Paul did, however, have principle. He refused to take money when he did not need it. He pushed into new territory to take the gospel, while others simply rode his coattails. He faithfully raised up new leaders like Timothy, Titus and Silvanus. He painstakingly worked on theology.

Many pastors I know are like Paul rather than the (appropriately) unnamed “super-apostles.” They have been called. They grind away in obscurity. They take less money than they could make in the private sector…or work another job. They faithfully disciple. They study Scripture. They do all of this knowing full well that there are other pastors out there who will always gain more notoriety.

Others who are louder.

Others who are more opinionated.

Others who always speak while they are processing.

Others who seem to somehow end up in the spotlight.

These pastors may not be the greatest preachers in the world. They may not know the best leadership practices. They may not have the most clever responses to the latest issues on social media. And, if they are honest, they tire of being overlooked for the “super-pastors.”

But Paul’s letters are encouraging. The man who was not the greatest preacher or leader is read 2000 years later. We do not even know the name of Paul’s “super-apostle” competitors. Faithfulness and skillfulness, over time, bears fruit that some never experience.

So to those “normal” pastors: Take heart. Stay true to the Scripture. Hold fast to your convictions. Teach, love, preach, pastor, and do so knowing that you will reap a harvest of faithfulness that is often unseen. Your ministry is worthwhile, even when it feels pointless.

To sum up pastoral ministry:

  • Loudest is not best.
  • Opinionated is not best.
  • Impressive is not best.

What is best?

  • Faithfulness to Jesus.
  • Skillfulness in the field where you are planted.
  • Raising up followers of Jesus.
  • Teaching Scripture and theology.
  • Playing the long game.

Do not strive for the blessing of the “super-apostle.”

Strive instead for the acclaim of Jesus:

Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

 

January 21, 2019

Eyeing the Competition

While 99% of the people in Pastor Reynold’s congregation met with him at the church or in a coffee shop, Olivia was good friends with his wife which gave her somewhat unfettered access to the pastor at his home.

Dropping in one day while Mrs. Reynolds was out, they stood at the front door and talked for five minutes, and as usual, Olivia was going on and on about the latest podcast she’d heard from some U.S. preacher. “You should check him out sometime; it was absolutely awesome!”

It wasn’t just her; there were a bunch of twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings in the church who seemed to trade teaching links the way his generation traded baseball cards. It was as though everyone is looking for the next big thing.

Finally he decided to state the obvious, “So did you like my sermon this week?”

“It was okay.” She seemed to be reluctantly volunteering that assessment.

“Would it be better if I got some skinny jeans?” he asked her, but she just laughed.

So he tried it another way, “Would it be different if I had a podcast?”

“You do have a sermon podcast; the tech team posts your message every Monday.”

“Oh right…” at which point he had to admit to himself that he’d forgotten that; in fact, he’d never even been to the page where the sermons were posted.

Olivia got a text back from Mrs. Reynolds saying she wouldn’t be home for an hour, so Olivia texted back that they’d meet the next day instead.

Pastor Reynolds went back to his computer and tried to find an email he’d received several weeks ago from Jordan, Olivia’s husband. Jordan had recommended that the pastor watch and listen to a particular speaker but the email had sat ignored.

“Where did he say that guy was from?” the pastor asked himself. “Bismark? Boise? Bakersfield?” He found the email, clicked the link and started listening. He’d set the expectation bar quite low and wasn’t prepared for what he saw and heard.

After about four minutes, out loud to no one besides the cat, he said, “Oh my goodness… this ain’t the kind of preaching I was raised on.”

It was actually two hours before Mrs. Reynolds came home, and by then Pastor Reynolds had heard three sermons by three different next generation preachers, and had scrawled two pages of handwritten notes…


…Every healthy church has people of different ages who are being influenced by speakers and teachers online from their generation.  Someone who loves Charles Stanley is unlikely to develop an affection for John Mark Comer and vice versa. A fan of David Jeremiah is unlikely to convert to a steady diet of Judah Smith. A daily listener to Chuck Swindoll is unlikely to abandon him for Levi Lusko.

The point of today’s story however is that pastors would do well to invest some time listening to those teachers who are influencing the people in their congregation. People like Olivia can’t get to John Mark’s or Judah’s or Levi’s church. If they live more than an hour from a major city, they might not even be able to get to one like it. Pastor, they worship at your church and they’re part of your congregation.

But they have these other influences, just as certainly as the older people take in In Touch, Turning Point and Insight for Living. Furthermore, the older members of the church often listen to these radio and television preachers on a daily basis, whereas they only come to church once a week. Media preaching has a greater impact on many churchgoers than what takes place at weekend services.

Shouldn’t pastors take some time every once in awhile to check out what it is people are hearing? In the story, Pastor Reynolds announces to an empty house not that the message is ‘Heresy!’ but rather that the communication style is exceptionally different; greatly engaging. The pacing is different; there’s less shouting; the messages are longer but the times seems to fly by. He makes notes.

I think the practice of listening to the group of rising pastors and authors should be part of a pastor’s occasional routine. I know people in vocational ministry are busy and groan under the weight of all the books people in the church tell them they should read, and podcasts they should watch or listen to, but if someone in your congregation is overflowing with excitement about a spiritual influence in their lives, wouldn’t one would want to know what it is?


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May 24, 2018

Review: Christianity in an Age of Skepticism

Filed under: books, Christianity, Faith, reviews — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:28 am

In the past few days I’ve shared excerpts from Evangelism in a Skeptical World: How to Make the Unbelievable News about Jesus More Believable by Sam Chan (Zondervan) but I feel this book is important enough to merit a formal review.

Someone long forgotten told me that this was a must-read book for 2018, but although I can’t place who it was, I know it was someone I respected so I decided to investigate further. I know the word Evangelism scares many of you, but this is how-to book on a whole other level. Whereas Mark Clark’s The Problem of God is concerned with the particular arguments people will use against the existence of God or the deity of Christ, Sam Chan is concerned with how we craft our various types of presentations, be they a one-on-one story of God’s presence in our lives, or a one-to-many presentation in the style of a sermon.

The latter type of information might be helpful for those starting down the road of becoming preachers. I can see this book easily fitting into a first year Homiletics class in a Bible college. There are also online resource links which take the reader to the academic section of the Zondervan website. But in terms of its overall intent, its pricing, and the fact it doesn’t appear under the Zondervan Academic imprint, this is a book for everyone who wants to be better at our calling to be the life and witness of Christ in this world.

I have some favorite chapters. Chapter two deals with introducing Jesus into casual conversation with our friends and the different approaches we can take.

…our community has a powerful role in forming our beliefs. Different communities with some of the same experiences will interpret them in different ways. Different communities with the same facts, evidence and data will interpret them in different ways.  ~p43

Chapter three deals with assembling a response to the needs of people around us, and looks at the various metaphors in the Gospel narratives in a way that this reader had never seen them presented. I’m a huge believer in using charts and diagrams and this book is generous with both.


~p71

Those unfamiliar with the challenge of using traditional means to try to reach Postmoderns will find the situation well-defined in the fourth chapter.

…the gospel will remain unbelievable as long as our non-Christian friends don’t have many Christian friends, because we tend to adopt the plausibility structures of those we know and trust. ~p117

For those who haven’t studied the challenges of world missions, the fifth chapter deals with contextualization.

To the crowd, John told them to share food and clothing. To the tax collectors, John told them to stop cheating. to the soldiers, John told them to stop extorting money and to stop accusing people falsely ~p135

I don’t agree with Sam Chan on everything. (This is the probably the only book in my collection that says, “Foreword by D.A. Carson.) There were some early chapters where I thought I better subtitle might be, The Evangelism Methodology of Timothy Keller, since Chan gushes about Keller’s writing repeatedly. (Doing this with the audio book would make a great drinking game.)

The chapters on preaching topical and exegetical sermons would probably be of greater interest to… well, preachers. Though I must add that I did appreciate the idea that it’s not a case of either topical or exegetical. Both approaches borrow from the other, even if some won’t admit that. 

That Sam Chan is of Asian descent would give this book appeal to anyone who is part of a minority where Christianity also has minority status. That, plus his Australian origins play into the book many times where he argues that the Bible is not interpreted the same all over the world. (A great example is the inclusion of Don Richardson’s account that in presenting the gospel to a particular tribe, they were cheering Judas because treachery is honored in that tribe.) Because I live just an hour east of Toronto, which has a very high Asian population those stories really resonated.

Again, I view this as part of a limited collection of must-read books for this year. Everyone from the zealous, new convert who wants to reach out to his work, neighborhood or social network; or the seasoned, veteran believer who wants to reminded of the evangelism fundamentals will find this beneficial and will, like me find themselves returning to re-examine several key chapters.


Excerpts appearing here previously:

May 12, 2018

If a Sermon is Preached in a Forest, and No One is There to Hear it… ?

Filed under: Christianity, guest writer — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:16 am

by Ruth Wilkinson

…Boston was one of our most recent expeditions. Really interesting city (American history machine aside). Cool architecture, good subway, Chinatown, really easy to get lost, terrible maps, good food. Perfect. Some historic churches. Mostly for “freedom” reasons, of one kind or another.

We chanced upon one that really struck me. Not as old as some of the others, probably. No “Paul Revere slept through the sermon here” plaques. But a lovely red brick building, tucked away in one of the more serpentine neighborhoods. We climbed a few steps to a back door and found it unlocked, so we went in. Found ourselves in a foyer of sorts, creaky floored and unlit. There was another door in front of us, so we pulled that one open. Creak. Stepped to the threshold. Creak. Peeked through the door. Creak.

It was beautiful inside. Warm and hushed and soaring. Stained glass windows, old dark pews, draperies and candles. It smelled of polished wood and wax and flame and time and prayer. But we didn’t go in any further. We closed the door and left. Creaking all the way…

…You see, the reason why we left without really going in is that when we opened that inner door, we heard something.

Someone speaking. One voice.

One voice echoing through the room, over the pews, off the windows. The pews that were completely empty, the windows that were telling their stories to no one.

One voice, chanting in what might have been Latin. Reciting a text that no one would hear. Except the speaker and God himself. Because they were the only ones in the room.

As we left, we looked at the sign on the fence outside. “5:00 pm. Mass”. It was 5 pm. So the Mass was being said. Whether anyone was there to hear it or not. It had to be said.

Why? I have no clue. But it had to be said. If only to the antique pews and the priceless glass and the glowing candles and absolutely not a living soul. Haunted and driven by tradition. Disregarded by life and humanity.

…Church with a sermon and no congregation.

original article at GTI

May 5, 2018

Tag Team Preaching

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:03 am

Last weekend our church hosted a parenting seminar with Jim and Lynne Jackson from Connected Families and authors of Discipline That Connects With Your Child’s Heart. I was unable to be there, but the Jacksons stayed over for the Sunday morning service and shared some of their principles which have broader application to the church as a whole.

Jim admitted upfront at one point that he was going to go off script, and Lynne confirmed that the Sunday teaching we saw was not their usual fare, but to me it mattered little. What impressed me was the dynamics of watching the interaction between the two of them, as opposed by the presentation by a single speaker which we normally get at church services.

My mind tends to wander, though I need to offset that by saying that by the end of Sunday, I had listened to six sermons. However, this change in homiletic paradigm had me on the edge of my seat. The message took on a different energy and a different life.

I’ve stated this before, but I’m convinced that all the various technologies and social media have wreaked havoc with our attention spans. If you want to connect with people, you need to reinvent the wheel, opting perhaps for three 10-minute mini-sermons instead of the current 30 minutes.

Or consider tag team preaching.

January 5, 2018

The Antidote to Church and Worship Overanalysis

So on Monday we talked about the danger of falling into what is, if not a critical spirit, perhaps a critique-ical spirit when it comes to things like the worship time and sermon time at your local church. We said we would come back and discuss some solutions. Here are some things we came up with:

Celebrate the good things taking place at your church.

Try to keep a focus on the strengths, rather than the weaknesses of the people in leadership. Rehearse those things in your mind and in conversation with family and friends. Remember some moments where your church really stepped up its game and made a difference.

Develop a positive, wholesome attitude toward things in general.

Here’s how two contemporary versions translate Philippians 4:8 —

Finally, brothers and sisters, fill your minds with beauty and truth. Meditate on whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is good, whatever is virtuous and praiseworthy. (The Voice)  Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. (The Message)

Hang out with people new to your church, especially new believers.

What a breath of fresh air to spend your fellowship time at church with people who haven’t developed negative attitudes; people for whom everything is new, and fresh, and exciting. These people are the fresh blood which keeps the church functioning at its best. They may also have questions and answering those will keep your mind from going in other directions.

Make your comments as constructive suggestions.

The best way to do this is to ask questions. What if we did this differently? Or, What if we offered ______ an opportunity to take the lead on that segment of the service next week? Or, What if we had the youth group handle worship one week? While you don’t want to overdo this, it is less threatening than to make overt complaints and express overt dissatisfaction without offering anything as an alternative.

Visit another church.

You might just need a break. If you visit another church and find they’re doing everything perfectly, at least you’ll have a perspective or an authority to make suggestions. (Or maybe even a new church home.) Chances are however, that your church has some things it does better, and the other church has its own issues which, while different, are equally important to people there.

Put your name forward for a leadership position.

Six months of elders/deacons/board meetings might open your eyes as to why things are the way they are. You may find the issues are far more complicated than you realized. Don’t lose your idealism, but try to gain an understanding of how process works in a local church and how to bring about constructive improvement.

Avoid taking a leadership position.

Yes, I know. The opposite. It may be that you’re happier putting some distance between you and the things that tend to upset you. Perhaps changing diapers in the nursery or serving outside on the parking team would be more satisfying right now, both to you and the people who may have been caught in a rant or two.

Those are a few suggestions. Can you think of any we’ve missed?

January 1, 2018

Worship Analytics

You’re at a church service and one or more of the following happens:

  • You find yourself considering the theological underpinning of the opening prayer
  • You’re noticing all manner of technical things involving the worship music; everything from audio levels, to the competency of the musicians, to the song choices.
  • As the sermon progresses you find your brain, which should be absorbing the message, is more in the mode of critiquing the delivery, clarity, depth, application, etc.

Try as you may, you can’t stop analyzing everything that’s going on.

Maybe you know too much!

Here’s the question — because I already know some of you who are readers here do this — I want to ask: What percentage of people who are also among you in the congregation are also doing this?

I’d like to think in the case of music that the worship leaders (or people who actually do these things but are on a Sunday off) only number about 5% of the total congregation. Idealistic? Absolutely! Certainly the critical remarks you sometimes hear in the church lobby are based on significant numbers of people who have been treating the thing as though the pastor or worship team are contestants on a reality show.

But I might be wrong. Perhaps like Statler and Waldorf everyone has detached themselves from the prayer or worship or sermon and is filling in their scorecard.

That would be tragic, though some might argue a consequence of a consumer-focused church where the congregation is more of an audience.

I think there are ways to combat this mentality, but first, I want to hear from you how prevalent it might be.

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.

 

August 19, 2017

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

How Preaching Sounds to the Uncommitted

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

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

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

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

genuine passion + extensive knowledge = audience engagement

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

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

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

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

Now I know how preaching sounds to an atheist.

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

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

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

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

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

There was no history, no personality. No identity.

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

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

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

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