Archive for August, 2010

People question my insistence that preachers should ditch their points. Points, I have argued, are planted and buried with story, whispers and the inspiring word. People don’t need or want step-by-step directions and we’re not interested in the points. Do you need proof? Just think about the last time you read a “User License Agreement” on a computer program. Oh, wait, you didn’t read it. The reason is simple, you want to get on to engagement. Engagement rarely comes in 1…2…3. Below is perhaps the greatest proof ever.

Sunday night my wife, Rochelle, and I accepted an invitation from the Yaseen Foundation to attend Iftar – the sunset, fast-breaking – at a local mosque. As a member of the board for the Peninsula Clergy Network, the professional association for Bay area clergy, I was glad to accept the invitation from one of my fellow board members, the Imam of the mosque. Since 9/11, Americans, in general, have learned a great deal – though certainly not enough and not always correct – about Islam; the month of Ramadan being chief among these learnings.

As you know, during Ramadan, Muslims refrain from eating and drinking from dawn until sunset. The fast is intended to teach Muslims about patience, humility, and spirituality. In the past, friends of mine, for want of learning, fellowship and understanding have participated fully in Ramadan and found it to be a moving and productive time. Rochelle and I did not choose to join the fast, but we did want to learn, directly from practitioners, what Islam and Ramadan are about. Over the next little while, I’ll post some thoughts about our experience.

When people learn that we participated in Iftar, the first question is always, “Why?” Why would devoted Christ-followers, which Rochelle and I are, choose to participate in a ritual and prayer service from another religion? It’s a fair question, I think, so here’s our reasoning.

  1. What most Christians know of Islam is what they see and hear in the media. Unfortunately, both for Christians and Muslims alike, the focus of the media and Islam is on terrorism. That’s understandable given that the perpetrators of 9/11 and other terrorist acts have claimed Islam as their religion and justified their actions as both faithful to and in concert with the Qur’an and religious purity. Thinking Christians, however, know that White-Supremist and other bad actors in history have misrepresented the Christian faith in order to justify their own twisted perspectives. Is my church, and nearly every Christian I know, represented by the Ku Klux Klan, the Inquisition, the Crusades, the Christians who supported slavery and abortion clinic bombers? I think not. To understand what a religion truly is, people of good faith and intent must listen to it’s best practitioners and allow the religion to speak for itself. As the keynote speaker at our Iftar said, “In every religion there are people intent on distorting the religion.” Apparently, there is a darkness in the human heart so twisted that it seeps out in every worldview, religion, and perspective.
  2. I didn’t know any Muslim. It’s very easy to caricature people you don’t know. It’s even easier to fixate on the differences that live on the surface – dress, language, skin color, etc… – all those things that are highly visible but fairly superficial. Regardless of who it is, when humans sit at table with actual people, we discover that we share a great deal. We all have a desire to see our children prosper, a want to live in peace, to exercise our freedom of religion, and preserve the goodness of the Earth God has given us. As one who continues to believe in the supremacy of Christ, I enter these relationships always hopeful of Christian conversion, but even short of that, engaging with practitioners of another religion, profits me the opportunity to represent Christ to others who may have misconceptions about Christianity and Christ.
  3. To learn something. Oddly, there are pockets within our world that are firmly anti-intellectual. There are some people who are suspicious of people who read “too much,” study “too much” or have advanced education. Do we really believe that it’s better to know less rather than more? Ignorance leads to fear and “fear to the dark side.” As someone charged by God to teach, experience and information are not only the tools of my trade, but the way I “face” the world – to borrow and image from F. LeRon Shults. As our country becomes increasingly polarized, knowledge of one another and the ability to listen to and not speak past one another are keys to regaining civility and advancing our shared hopes and dreams.

I’m reminded at this moment that Jesus hung out with a lot of people that the good, church-going religious folks shunned. When I die, I want people to be able to say the same thing about me.

(to be continued)

Take the “How Well Do You Know Islam Quiz” here.

Good leaders have to see beyond the moment. There are certain urgent matters that all of us deal with, but whether you’re a school teacher, a pastor, an elder or a CEO, if you have people you shepherd, you cannot afford to get lost in the moment.

Scripture is replete with this teaching. In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus calls this moment, “the worries of this life;” the wisdom of Ecclesiates names these moments “vanity of vanities” and the apostle Paul even calls our afflictions “slight and momentary.” All that to say, this moment passes. This life passes. Each of these wise teachers is directing us to the same thing: Live for something bigger!

And this is what leaders must never forget.

As a leader, I know this about you: You care deeply about every aspect of your organization. If you didn’t you would never rise to leadership. In your mind, if there were enough hours in the day, you’d invest as much as you could in every nook and cranny of your agency, church or organization. Not to control it, not to dominate, necessarily, but because you care. You care not just about the outcomes of the organization, but the people tasked to produce those outcomes. You want to know. You want to help.

That being the case, you must restrain yourself from over-investment in the mundane, in the day-to-day. And instead, you must remain constantly fixed on what Chip and Dan Heath call, your “DESTINATION POSTCARD.” No one else in your organization will do it, so you must! If you become overwhelmed with details that others could handle (and perhaps handle better), your entire organization will flounder. Your team will work for months or years and one day realize that they have little idea what they are doing, where there headed and how they got there – or didn’t.

At Redwood Church, that’s exactly what our staff is doing now; constructing our “destination postcard.” It’s a picture of what our organizational goal will be once we’ve done what we feel led to do. And I want to encourage you to do the same.

Here are the resources we’re using as conversation starters and pointers along out journey.

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard and Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath

The Big Idea by Dave Ferguson and others

In the previous post, I began making the case that preacher’s should ditch their points (or at least the way we usually make them). So if you decide not to deluge your audience with points when you preach, what should you do instead? It’s a good question. First, I must restate the simple fact that scripture does not come step-by-step, point-by-point. The entire canon forms one grand narrative. Scot McKnight’s, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible, is an excellent source to help you unearth this truth. Therefore, when you and I decide to abandon the “points-preaching model” and adopt a more narrative form, we are not losing a sacred pedagogical tool; rather we are assuming (and it is an assumption), that teaching like Jesus taught is a better model. As a Christian, I assume that everything Jesus did, He better than anyone else did. Insomuch, Jesus should be imitated whenever possible.

So, you ask, what should we do then after we ditch our pitiful points preaching? My answer, “Do what the text does.”

Here’s how to get started:

Assume the text(s) knows how to tell a story. When preparing your sermon try following the story of the text you’re preaching and sketch it out as one would a cartoon strip. Each move of the sermon should form a picture that tells a story, or at least part of one. The sermon then moves from beginning, middle and end becoming a story itself. Obviously, the various content and genres available in scripture mean that sermons look different from one another. An orienting text such as Proverbs or James is much more hard and fast than Jesus’ explanations of the Kingdom in the gospels. Sermons should reflect the nature of the text being preached. When Jesus says, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” the Savior is allowing for imagination, He’s encouraging it. “Thou shalt not kill…” is a different kind of text, birthing a different type of sermon. Therefore, you do what the text does.

Assume relevance. Preachers prostitute the text with points when they think no one will care what the text actually says. As a matter of fact, I recently heard a preacher that I like and respect say, “I want to share 4 points with you. Now, I just made these up…” Really? What he’s actually saying is, “I don’t think this text is relevant to your felt needs, so I’m going to make it relevant. Therefore, I will twist and turn this text into an answer to a question.” I may be naive, but I’m going to assume the text is relevant. Not all texts are relevant at all times and in the same way; that’s a pastoral decision for you to make in the planning process. The idea many write sermons with is that these events happened long ago and life has changed so drastically that I must close the distance between my congregation and the Bible. Unfortunately, this move actually increases the distance and leads listeners to the unfounded belief that scripture is boring and just not for them. Any faithful Bible student knows, however, that Scripture is incredibly present. It just takes reading and faith.

(to be continued…)

One of the great dangers in preaching is making a point! This seems counterintuitive for those who speak publicly, and perhaps it is for some, but it shouldn’t be for preachers. People who preach often ruin their sermons by making a point. Or worse, they make three of them, ruining the sermon by the same factor. Making matters worse, each little point rest in the pitiful, play yard pool of pathetic alliteration. It’s enough to make me need and avalanche of Advil! Which is why I think missionaries, preachers, pastors, teachers, communicators, cultural architects, lead visionaries, communal arbiters and other contemporary silliness titles should be careful about making points.

Why?

Because making points (which I’m about to do) performs at least 3 bad acts on every homily.

Points Break Form. Scripture doesn’t come to us in points, it comes in narrative; it comes as stories. Do stories have points? Yes. But no one stops in the middle of telling a story about what their 5-year-old did to make sure you get the point. The point is embedded in the story. What’s more, Jesus tells stories both to reveal His message and conceal it.  Those without ears could not hear it, and our Lord didn’t change His preaching style to make sure they did. Sometimes Jesus wanted people to get the point, other times, He didn’t. There is something – and we may never know what – that is divine about storytelling. To reach people the way Jesus did, we might consider following His form, we should embody His method. Points, graphs, charts, and projectors come from the business world. Stories belong to the church.

Points Dictate. We don’t mean for them too, but they do. Having 3 points on a distributed outline or jazzed up in your PowerPoint actually INCREASES the distance between the listener and the text. The preacher has given himself or herself the elevated position of telling the hearers what’s most important in the text. A good Bible student knows that s/he might find three things this week and three more things next week from the same text. Yet, the average church goer – especially in a context like mine, wherein so many people are adults converts – doesn’t know that there is more to be mined in the text than a 30-minute homily can cover. They think what the preacher said is all, or close to all, that can be said. Points collapse the text by telling people what’s most important, while other means of communication (or just leaving points out) expand the text and, over time, the Biblical imagination of the listener.

Points Tune People Out. When you have 3 points on an overheard, you should simply stand up, read the text, give them the three points and go home. Why? Because that’s all that people KNOW they need to pay attention to. The rest is just filler. I wish I could find it, but I recently saw a survey that said audiences were generally excited before a speaking session and that same excitement drastically reduced once the speaker began his/her PowerPoint. The way most preachers use points is akin to turning to the back of the math book for the answers to the odd numbered questions. People, pressed for time and short on discipline, flip to the “answers” jot it down and move along. They don’t care how to get there on their own and therefore are unprepared when life’s hardships and reversals come their way. They don’t know God because they never had to engage Him or discern His ways and will.

Preaching should be about expanding who we are and the human experience, not reducing it. It should be concerned with communal discernment rather than pseudo-apostolic directives, it should call listeners to engage God, not merely look for the quick and easy, short and quick, hope-to-God it’s painless mire of points!

As a congregant you have a significant role to play in helping your preacher preach better. In the last post, we talked a little about time and the effect lack of time can have on sermon preparation. Think about this: After Seinfeld went off television, Jerry Seinfeld decided to retire all his old stand-up material (watch the movie, “Comedian”). He spent the next year crafting a new act. After a year, Seinfeld had 30-minutes worth of material. That’s right ONE YEAR! 30 MINUTES!

Guess what? Your preacher does 30 minutes every week!

Could he or she do less? Probably. But here’s my point: Many of us have been in church so long that we’ve forgotten or never understood what we were asking of our preacher in terms of the speech act itself. Your preacher, unlike Jerry Seinfeld, can’t simply use the same “material” over and over again and be effective. Also, read the sermons in the book of Acts. They are strikingly similar and mercifully short. Churches, however, asks their minister to speak a fresh word every week and sometimes to speak multiple fresh words throughout the week. Hear me correctly, this isn’t a preacher complaining about his job. Complaining is fruitless. It is, however, one preacher asking you to help your preacher preach better by understanding what they are up against. And here’s how:

1. Prayer – Seems obvious, but I’ve known preachers who were cursed more than they were prayed for. The prayers won’t just changed the preaching, it’ll change your heart about the preacher.

2. Feedback – Preachers are generally narcissist who are very self-conscious. (No worries, God made them this way in order to stand before great multitudes each week AND care about what’s coming out of their mouths.) But they are also overwhelmingly concerned about doing what they can to help your life and your relationship with God. When giving feedback, tell them what you LIKED, what was meaningful. Trust me, like a professional golfer walking off the 18th green, preachers know every shot they missed and where their swing was flawed. If you want more of something from your preacher, praise it. He or she is human-being, they’ll respond.

3. Force Time Away – Good preachers work all the time, they even work when they’re not supposed to be working. If you want to nurture your preacher, send them and their spouse away for a weekend. Be insistent and do what you can to make that happen. Sometimes that means paying for it yourself or with a group. You’re not paying for it because your preacher is broke, but because they’ll be less likely to turn it down if it’s paid for already.

4. Be Friends – Ask around, many preachers don’t have friends. You can be a friend. Just imagine what it would be like to stand in front of a crowd of people each week and having them ALL want something from you. It’s tiring. Try taking your preacher to a ball game, out to the movies, or to play cards. Just him or her, not their entire family, and build a genuine relationship. Here’s the inside scoop, when preachers get overtures from other churches, one of the overwhelming reasons they stay put, is friends.

You’ll notice that all the ways to help your preacher are relational, not technical. I bet relational connectedness is his or her greatest felt need. The best preachers I’ve known felt relationally connected to their congregation. They didn’t just look connected – which is different. They felt connected. Here’s the thing: There’s only one way to find out if your preacher feels connected and loved rather than looks connected and loves, you have to ask them.