Thinking Out Loud

February 7, 2017

I’ll Have Some Expository with a Side of Topical

Expository versus Topical

From Todd Rhoades who sourced it at Sacred Sandwich.

Expository preaching consists of working through a passage on a verse-by-verse basis. For many of you, it’s the sermon style you grew up with; for a few it might be the only Bible teaching form you know.

Topical preaching seeks to look at selected scriptures and build a picture of the Bible’s wider teaching on a particular subject or issue. It grew in popularity when the seeker-sensitive church movement started, and is therefore often associated with that paradigm.

preacherExpository preaching is a necessary skill for pastors. If you can’t exegete a passage, you don’t pass homiletics or hermeneutics in Bible college or seminary.

Topical preaching is sometimes mistakenly thought of as “sermon lite.” It’s been — dare I say it? — demonized because of its association with things traditionalists don’t care for: contemporary music, casual dress, modern Bible translations, seeker-targeted services, etc.

A good speaker should be able to do both approaches, and should know when to do both.

But every once in awhile I run across an online article that is waving the flag for the expository style, and therefore reiterating an implied disdain for the alternative, topical preaching.

On many aspects of the debate I agree that there is an engagement at a different level with the expository style. But the rhetoric of these articles is usually completely over-the-top; indeed there is almost a venom in the words chosen to state what is, at the end of the day, the author’s preference. The following, archived here, is a good example:

Topical preaching is more like a steady diet of fast food. It takes great but is not good for you. McDonald’s will make you happy and it does taste good but a steady flow of McDonald’s is not good for you. You need healthy substance to survive. Fast food makes one fat and lazy… A steady diet of fast food Christianity that tastes good but is not producing healthy disciples. Fast food Christianity produces shallow, self-focused people who want their felt needs met and view God as an end to their own problems. Lost is the holiness of God, the hatred for sin, the passion for God in prayer, the hunger for the Word of God, a zeal for evangelism, a passion to have a biblical worldview and to be as godly as one can be in a sinful world.

You can’t teach the holiness of God in a topical sermon? A steady diet of theme-based teaching fails to produce healthy disciples? By what metrics? Where is the research on this?

Then the writer felt the need to add one more paragraph, just in case you missed it:

So why do most churches avoid expository preaching? I would answer that by saying that 1) many churches want to entertain to draw crowds which equals money and success in their view and 2) the preacher is simply spiritually lazy and will not take time to study the Word of God to teach the Word as it should be honored and taught. In turn, topical preaching doesn’t teach the Word of God but is simply the preacher picking what he wants to say, makes his points, and then proof texts his points. That is not teaching the Bible. That is your teaching backed up by proof texts from the Bible.

Did you catch that second last sentence? Topical preaching “is not teaching the Bible.” Wow! That’s a rather heavy accusation to level. Caught up in the genuine emotion and passion about this subject, the writer kept keyboarding too long. (It reminds me of the writer describing an upcoming conference whose favorite speakers were noted as “friends of the gospel;” as if the others were not.) This is spiritual pride, plain and simple. A religious superiority complex.

Still, in the spirit of conciliation and peace-making, I decided to wade into this blog post’s swamp and try to post something redemptive; borrowing an idea from the music wars that have plagued many a church:

In February, 2013 I responded to their article:

This may not be popular here, but I want to offer a third way.

Many years ago, as churches agonized over the “hymns versus choruses” debate, the late Robert Weber introduced the term “blended worship;” a mixture of classic and modern compositions.

I believe there is some merit in bringing that mindset to this topic. I don’t necessarily lean to either the topical or expository style of preaching, as I believe there is only good preaching and bad preaching. The problem with topical preaching is that sometimes you never get deep enough into the context of the passage to learn anything new; it tends to have a guilty-by-association link with weak or entry-level teaching. The problem with expository preaching is that you miss the beauty and majesty of how the whole of scripture fits together, how the Bible speaks to various themes, and how seemingly contrasting verses hold a particular issue in tension.

So a blended approach would involve the use of related passages, but with a particular key passage more fully exegeted. None of this approach negates any of the nine points above, but it avoids the mindset that I’ve seen exist among some who are steeped in the expository approach and seem to have a phobia about introducing cross-references or parallel passages.

Now, at risk of being guilty of the very thing that I abhor about the approach taken in the article, let me add something else: It is far too easy for someone to get up, open their Bible to a single passage and basically ‘wing it.’ Drawing on your familiarity with the text, it is extremely easy to simply start reading verse by verse and improvise or amplify what is on the page without providing any added value.

In other words, while it’s possible for either type of preacher to get up unprepared, the topical sermon must have involved, at the very least, some gathering of related or parallel texts through commentaries or word studies.

So I’ll take my sermon topically, please, with a slice of exposition; and hold the personal opinions.

The most powerful thing a pastor can say in his sermon is, “Take your Bibles and look with me please to the book of …” And anywhere Bible pages are being turned or text is appearing onscreen, as far as I’m concerned, that’s a good thing.

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.

May 20, 2016

Sermon Format Brings Diminishing Returns

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 10:30 am

 Found this at Thom Schultz’s blog Holy Soup. It’s actually an introduction to a 36-minute podcast which I hope you’ll consider checking out.

After many years in the pulpit, Steve Simms gave up preaching. He turned the floor over to his congregation. And he’s never looked back.

Every Sunday at Berry Street Worship Center in Nashville, Tennessee, the faithful gather to hear and share personally what God is doing in their lives. It’s unscripted, and often surprising. Simms says, “Every Sunday we say we’ve never seen anything like that.” And that’s the way he–and his congregation–like it.

The people of Berry Street follow the advice in 1 Corinthians 14:26: “Whenever you come together, each one has a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, another language, or an interpretation.”

Simms said, “I’ve seen people grow spiritually far more rapidly in this style than when I was preaching.”

In fact, back in his preaching days, Simms polled his congregants with general recall questions about his sermon content. “Not one person could answer the questions,” he said.

And, the old one-way communication model is a primary reason today’s people are staying away from church, according to research.

In today’s Holy Soup podcast with Steve Simms, he explains how he conducts his participatory Sunday services. And he offers troubleshooting tips for some common worries about this style of message-bringing, including how to handle long-winded individuals, theological impurity, and shy members…

Simms has discovered what others, in other fields, are finding: the monolog lecture method has diminishing returns.

Listen to the entire podcast at Holy Soup or at SoundCloud.

 

March 21, 2016

With Every Head Bowed, and Every Eye Closed

Filed under: Christianity, Church, evangelism — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:23 am

altar-call-first-baptist-church-hammond

Yesterday morning in church I had a flashback to the church of my childhood, and a part of growing up Evangelical which was common to some readers here and possibly quite foreign to others of you.

Our pastor’s message today ended with an emphasis on repentance, and he asked people who needed to make repentance in their lives a priority to raise their hands.

Or something like that. Apparently I was having multiple flashbacks at that point, and missed the exact way he worded it.

Anyway, people raised their hands, and given the theme of the message, I debated about whether or not raise mine. We can all use a little contrition, right? I blinked my eyes open for a split second and noted that a large percentage of people were responding. But something held me back…

…You see, in my childhood church, every Sunday night service was an evangelistic meeting. Almost every service ended with the singing of Just As I Am — the same “invitation hymn” the Billy Graham Crusade choirs would end with — and an opportunity to “come forward” for prayer. It was the part of the service known as the “altar call” even though we didn’t have an altar as such.

Personal workers would then escort the people who “went forward” to the chapel, a room furnished with the pews and stained glass windows from the old building and which, for reasons unknown, I always found rather scary! Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that the church was built in the 1960s and everything was bright fluorescent lighting on off-white walls except for the chapel which was incandescents on wooden pews and wood panel walls. A dark place in which to see the light.

But before that happened, and before people went to the front of the church, and before the singing of the song, the pastor would ask people to raise their hand if they wished to be “included in the closing prayer.” This was the direct response to the message of the evening, and throughout the auditorium people would slip up a hand which he would acknowledge by saying, “I see that hand.” And again and again, “I see that hand.”

However, if you raised your hand, the personal workers, who were stationed throughout the crowd but mostly at the back would triangulate your location and then, minutes later, on the first words of “Just as I am, without one plea,” if you didn’t immediately step out into the aisle to “go forward,” they would swoop in like hawks and offer to go to the front with you. They were heading in that direction anyway, and wanting to get other riders to hop on the bus. (Mixed metaphor, I know.)

I made this mistake once as a preteen. My father, seeing that I was terrified of going forward told the personal worker that, “We’ll deal with this with him at home.” Whew! That was a close one!

So the lesson was learned rather quickly that if you didn’t raise your hand, you didn’t have to face an invitation to go forward for prayer and then be escorted to the Chapel House of Horrors…

…Which is why this morning I experienced that moment of hesitation. I didn’t want to get taken to the dark room, I guess; even though we don’t have one.

I guess I really do need to do a lot of repentance.


The image is of an altar call at First Baptist Church in Hammond, IN; the iconic church of Dr. Jack Hyles, which we visited once when I was a kid. Source. Judging by the number of people pressing in, and the empty spaces in the pews, they got a good response.

The church of my own youth is pictured in some magazines we own somewhere, but all of the pictures online are locked up by the vultures at Getty Images.

 

January 19, 2016

The Good News and Bad News of Ministry Life

I posted this at C201 a few days ago, but felt I ought to share it here as well.

If you knew me many years ago, there was a period when I would sign letters

I Corinthians 16-9

In my mind, the verse played out in the KJV text that I first learned it from;

For a great door and effectual is opened unto me, and there are many adversaries.

whereas today, I would probably refer you to a more recent translation, such as the NLT:

There is a wide-open door for a great work here, although many oppose me.

If you think about, this is the format of every missionary, church, or parachurch organization fundraising letter or ministry report you’ve ever received.

→ The good news is: God is working in the lives of people, we are seeing results.
→ The bad news is: We face [financial/staffing/logistical/spiritual-warfare/etc.] challenges.

There’s always a challenge. This weekend at church, the guest speaker shared this:

The greatest challenge in life is not having a burden to carry.

That’s right, without some mountain to climb or river to cross, our lives would actually be rather boring. Certainly there would be no growth. I discussed that quotation with a friend after the service was over, and he said, “Yes, but that’s we all want. We want it to be easy.”

Matthew Henry writes:

Great success in the work of the gospel commonly creates many enemies. The devil opposes those most, and makes them most trouble, who most heartily and successfully set themselves to destroy his kingdom. There were many adversaries; and therefore the apostle determined to stay.

Some think he alludes in this passage to the custom of the Roman Circus, and the doors of it, at which the charioteers were to enter, as their antagonists did at the opposite doors. True courage is whetted by opposition; and it is no wonder that the Christian courage of the apostle should be animated by the zeal of his adversaries. They were bent to ruin him, and prevent the effect of his ministry at Ephesus; and should he at this time desert his station, and disgrace his character and doctrine?

No, the opposition of adversaries only animated his zeal. He was in nothing daunted by his adversaries; but the more they raged and opposed the more he exerted himself. Should such a man as he flee?

Note, Adversaries and opposition do not break the spirits of faithful and successful ministers, but only kindle their zeal, and inspire them with fresh courage.

I checked out a number of commentaries online for this verse, and ended up pulling out several of my print commentaries. One of the greatest insights came at the bottom of the page of the NIV Study Bible:

many who oppose me. Probably a reference to the pagan craftsman who made the silver shrines of Artemis and to the general populace whom they had stirred up (Acts 19:23-34).

Interesting that what appeared to be spiritual opposition was actually rooted in commerce; people who had a vested financial interest in maintaining commercial interests in a pagan form of worship. Think about Jesus and the money-changers in the temple:

NIV Matt. 21:12 Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. 13 “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.

I’ll let Eugene Peterson re-phrase the Acts reference above:

23-26 …a huge ruckus occurred over what was now being referred to as “the Way.” A certain silversmith, Demetrius, conducted a brisk trade in the manufacture of shrines to the goddess Artemis, employing a number of artisans in his business. He rounded up his workers and others similarly employed and said, “Men, you well know that we have a good thing going here—and you’ve seen how Paul has barged in and discredited what we’re doing by telling people that there’s no such thing as a god made with hands. A lot of people are going along with him, not only here in Ephesus but all through Asia province.

27 “Not only is our little business in danger of falling apart, but the temple of our famous goddess Artemis will certainly end up a pile of rubble as her glorious reputation fades to nothing. And this is no mere local matter—the whole world worships our Artemis!”

28-31 That set them off in a frenzy. They ran into the street yelling, “Great Artemis of the Ephesians! Great Artemis of the Ephesians!” They put the whole city in an uproar, stampeding into the stadium, and grabbing two of Paul’s associates on the way, the Macedonians Gaius and Aristarchus. Paul wanted to go in, too, but the disciples wouldn’t let him. Prominent religious leaders in the city who had become friendly to Paul concurred: “By no means go near that mob!”

32-34 Some were yelling one thing, some another. Most of them had no idea what was going on or why they were there. As the Jews pushed Alexander to the front to try to gain control, different factions clamored to get him on their side. But he brushed them off and quieted the mob with an impressive sweep of his arms. But the moment he opened his mouth and they knew he was a Jew, they shouted him down: “Great Artemis of the Ephesians! Great Artemis of the Ephesians!”—on and on and on, for over two hours.

Some people believe that finding the heart of many world and regional conflicts is simply a matter of “follow the money.” The point is that we don’t always know and we don’t always see why people are so very bent on opposing us in ministry. Not to minimize Matthew Henry’s interpretation, it’s simply too easy to say, ‘It’s the Devil;’ or put things into some general spiritual warfare category. Maybe your devout faith and witness are simply “bad for business” for someone nearby.

…My opinion would be that where ministry is taking place many challenges and overt opposition will occur. If it’s not, maybe you’re doing it wrong.

Greater opportunities = Greater opposition.

But the good news is that most of the time the opposite is also true.

Greater opposition = Greater opportunities.

Romans 5:20b (CJB) says,

…but where sin proliferated, grace proliferated even more.

Ministry life involves both: Great opportunities for harvest and life change, and many who would rather keep the status quo.

 

 

 

 

November 30, 2015

Choose Your Mentors Carefully

An early photo of Bobby Schuller from the days we first started tracking him here.

An early photo of Bobby Schuller from the days we first started tracking him here.

It’s been five years now since this blog first started tracking Bobby Schuller, grandson of legendary pastor Robert H. Schuller. You can read that 2010 profile here, or if you prefer something more recent, earlier this year on PARSE, I ran a link to this WorldMag.com story.

Even more recently, on last Wednesday’s link roundup, I mentioned that an abridged half-hour version of the Hour of Power is going to get a network run, albeit early on Sunday mornings; one that will focus on Bobby’s teaching, with the program title named after him.

I thought that was sufficient until alert reader and online friend Clark Bunch noticed that the Orange County Register story may have actually buried the lede. (Yes, it’s spelled right, see here and here.)

Apparently — nested in the tenth paragraph — is the news that no less than Joel Osteen has been teaching young Schuller the tricks of the trade:

In June, KCAL/9 started airing Schuller’s half-hour show immediately after Texas televangelist Joel Osteen’s broadcast. Schuller said he visited Osteen’s Lakewood Church in September to learn from the popular pastor.

“We’ve become good friends,” Schuller said. “He gave me some good advice.”

Osteen told Schuller to watch his own sermon with the volume off so he can observe his body language. Does it reflect the positivity of the message?

“I’ve also started memorizing my sermon outline so I don’t have to look at my notes much,” Schuller said. “It allows me to engage more with my audience. And I’ve learned from Joel to look directly into the camera when I speak. It helps me make a spiritual connection with viewers.”

Okay. Don’t get me wrong, I think body language could be important. I would hate for any would-be Christian communicator to be on television with awkward quirks that distract from the message. And I wouldn’t want someone representing my faith on national media to make so little eye contact that he or she seems dishonest.

Joel Osteen displaying good body language and eye contact

Joel Osteen displaying good body language and eye contact

Yes. Those things are important.

But in the online world, the last decade has taught us a little phrase that applies in so many aspects of communications: Content is king.

It’s the substance of your sermon that matters. In a particularly Christian context, that means good exegesis, and good hermeneutics. In other words, is the preacher parsing the text well? Are they interpreting the text through a healthy mix of context, word-study, and alignment with related passages elsewhere in scripture?

Then and only then, the other elements come to bear: a sense of humor, a gifted communicator, a unique message, a relevant application.

Joel Osteen doesn’t lack the latter, but there is much written online about a lack of substance and solid Biblical understanding.

I just don’t want that to happen to Bobby Schuller.

August 23, 2015

Heard and Seen This Week

Sermon podcastsHere are some things that I watched and listened to in the last seven days:

  • Jeff Manion, Ada Bible Church, Grand Rapids — The author of Satisfied and The Land Between was recommended to me a long time ago, but it took until this week for me to finally see what I had missing. Great speaker and a must-see if I’m ever in west Michigan. The sermon I watched in full was the second in a five-part series preached over the winter titled Five Days. Here’s the link to Who’s In Charge?
  • Gary Burge, Willow Creek, Chicago Northwest Suburbs — As Dr. Burge, a Wheaton College professor, begins this Midweek Experience message, he explained that there are no assigned topics in the summer, so he chose to do this one on The Unpardonable Sin.
  • Bruxy Cavey, The Meeting House, Oakville, Ontario — I finished all eight weeks of a sermon series on the first part of the life of Moses, a series to be continued in 2016. The series is called Chosen One.
  • Andy Stanley, North Point, Atlanta — In a few minutes I’m starting part two of a series titled What Makes You Happy. Live streaming of the full service today at 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 PM and midnight at the link below; and available later in the week on demand. A little bird (Twitter) told me the focus today is The Beatitudes.

What did you watch this week?

August 17, 2015

The Perils of Being the Guest Speaker

guest speakingI was coming to my third point when I noticed my mouth was getting dry from all the talking. Sometimes at work, I just push past this, but out of the corner of my eye I saw the glass of water that had been placed there.

I paused, picked up the glass, hesitated, and took a small sip. You guessed it. It was water that had been sitting there from the previous Sunday. Were some in the audience aware of what had just happened? Should I acknowledge the distraction? With the adrenaline rush that you get when you’re speaking before a group of people, I simply continued on in my message.

I did not get sick that day. I’ve often wondered if in this denomination, it’s the pastor’s responsibility to refresh the water glass himself. As a guest speaker, it’s certainly an occupational hazard.

0 0 0 0 0 0 0

Over the course of a couple of years, I had become the default speaker when the pastor, who had ministry interests both in Europe and Central America, needed to be away.

The first Sunday I arrived wearing a dress shirt and dress pants, but no jacket or tie. I was fairly certain this wasn’t normal for that church, but I wanted to make a statement.

The second time I spoke there I also went business casual, but this time, in my introduction, I explained how my work and my writing put me in contact with dynamic churches and pastors across North America and how the church is changing, being very careful to emphasize changes in church architecture, ministry philosophy, music and dress. I think I even acknowledge my own lack of a tie as example of this.

The third time — or just before the third time via email — one of the members told me that a few of them had been part of a discussion resulting in the decision that they would chip in and buy me a suit. “Where else would I wear it?” I asked. Even at the last wedding and funeral I attended, a sports jacket had been sufficient. “I think I do indeed own a suit;” I told them, “But that’s not the direction the North American church is moving.”

The fourth time I simply donned the sports jacket as I was leaving the house. When I arrived at the church, I noticed a few smiles.

…We got to hear John Wimber a couple of times in Southern California in 1989. They were both Sunday evening services, and he was wearing a track suit. Actually, he played with the worship band and then got up to preach, and if someone had said to you, ‘One of the people in the band is the pastor and tonight’s speaker; now guess who it is;” unless you’d seen his picture on his books, I guarantee you would have gotten it wrong.

Andy Stanley wears jeans for the most part, though not yesterday. In the south, it’s all very natural. Rick Warren has his trademark Hawaiian shirts. Bill Hybels is always very corporate, but I’ve never seen him in a suit, and not sure if I’ve seen him in a jacket and tie. (A quick scan of Yahoo Images bears this out, but for the one shot that I’m sure was taken at a banquet.)

The church in question now has a new minister so my guest-speaking and clothing-paradigm-smashing days there appear to be over. What I hope they remember is that the messages were good, but if my name is mentioned, what I think they may remember will have nothing to do with the Bible expositions I brought.

August 7, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

genuine passion + extensive knowledge = audience engagement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 23, 2015

The Calvinist and the Altar Call

I don’t want to take a lot of time over-introducing the video segment here, lest I fall into the trap of putting some spin on it; but in this 11-minute clip there is a strange juxtaposition between the revivalism of John Piper’s description of his traveling evangelist father, and the context of the Calvinist audience to whom he is speaking. If your mind and hearts are open, there is a moment of unusual transparency here where we learn as much about the speaker as we do about the place of pleading in the salvation process.

This clip was posted (or re-posted) by Free Gift Media, a new resource I am just being made aware of. To learn more check their Twitter and their website.

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