Archive for the ‘missional’ Category

A while ago, I began a conversation about how congregant could help their preacher preach better. You can read about those here and here. Today I’d like to turn our attention to how congregations can get the most out of a sermon.

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A sermon, like any form of communication, can go in one ear and out the other. Worse still, a sermon can find hospitality in the head and hostility in the heart. Many of us struggle with the weekly homily, but we don’t want to. We struggle with how to apply it, how to remember it, how to live it out, and make sense of it in a world wherein we hear so many messages all the time. So I thought I’d offer 5 Strategies to “Getting” the Sermon.

1. Dwell In The Word. If Sunday morning is the first time you’ve read the sermon text, much of what the preacher says will be lost on you. It’s cold. You haven’t had time to allow the scriptures to seep into your skin. At Redwood Church, we provide the entire congregation the sermon text(s) and a brief synopsis of the sermon every Thursday via e-mail. This allows the willing to read the text(s), get a feel for where the sermon is headed and allows God to work the mystery of His presence in a hearer’s heart before Sunday. Peeking at the text ahead of time gets you back into story – it’s probably been a long time since you’ve read about Judah and Tamar, my subject for this week – refresh your memory.

2. Take Your Own Notes. Our congregation provides notes for every one in attendance. These are largely useless! Why? Because these notes are limited to what I think is most important in the text and are typically subject heading. Don’t check your brains at the narthex. Surprise, surprise; God may have something distinct in mind for you. Each scripture passage is deep, rich and meaningful, only so much can be covered in 20-minutes, um, I mean 40 minutes. 🙂

3. Bring Your Own Bible. We provide Bible for new Christians and visitors, but for old hands, there’s nothing as good as thumbing through your Bible, making notes in it, highlighting meaningful texts and moving insights. My Bible is a kind of journal of my with-God life. When a teacher or preacher says something important or I gain a new insight, I jot it down inside the text and it serves me for the rest of my life. Not only that, by using my own Bible – and not being dependent on the screen – I learn the text and memorize where things are. It’s a way of taking responsibility for my own attention to God’s Word.

4. Listen Again.With modern technology, sermons don’t expire at noon on Sunday. Anyone in the world can download my sermons and listen to them as many times as they’d like. (This isn’t just about my sermons. I, too, listen to sermons each week from other pastors. I don’t just listen once. There’s too much in any given homily to get it all the first time.) If you do this, sooner or later you’ll get a feel for your preacher; how they walk through a text; what’s important to them, etc….This will help you glean more.

5. Ask, Prod, and Seek. Guess what? You’re preacher won’t be offended if you need further guidance or have questions about something. They’ll probably be shocked!! Though they may point you in the direction of a book with a fuller treatment of the issues, your minister wants you to “get it.” Here’s a crazy idea; ask your preacher to point you in the direction of the resources they use. Next week, you may be ahead of them!

Well, there you have it, 5 quick hitters to help you get more out of the “kerygmatic event.” Hope that helps.

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I was slightly taken aback when one of our church members – a friend and supporter of mine – joked to her husband that she listens to me 40-minutes every Sunday. Trust me, no one knows better than I do when I stray over my allotted time. In fairness, my sermons are typically about 30-minutes, not 40. A co-worker complained to me once that a particular sermon was 38-minutes (I could tell she had only checked the time stamp on the podcast and hadn’t listened to it. There was more recorded than the sermon and she hadn’t been in worship to hear it the first time. That sermon was 30-minutes). However, she was right in that my sermons are longer than (1) I was trained to make them, (2) have typically preached them in the past and (3) than I grew up hearing others preach their sermons.

What’s more, I’m not the only one who is preaching longer. As I examined the podcasts I listen to, began paying attention to the length of the sermons I watch online in the early hours of Sunday morning, talked to local preachers and perused all types of church websites, I’ve noticed something: Hardly anyone preaches 20-minutes sermons anymore! As a matter of fact, recently we had  a family join our congregation only to leave a month later. When I encountered the husband one morning in BestBuy, he reluctantly confessed he left because of “the teaching.” Surprised by his bluntness, I stepped back. He continued, “Sorry, Pastor, It just wasn’t enough. I need an hour of teaching; 50-minutes at least.” I’m finding that while attention spans in America may be getting shorter, sermons are getting longer. And there are 4 reasons why!

1. Biblical Illiteracy. When Rochelle and I came to Northern California we wanted to break out of the Bible Belt. We got all that and more. In the last 20 months we’ve had folks ask us if Abram and Abraham are the same person, who the “Lamb” is in reference to songs we sing, and hosts of questions we had answered for us in VBS as kids. It is an honor to introduce new people to the scriptures. We can never fault people for not knowing the basic narrative of the Bible, but it does mean that during the preaching event, nothing can be taken for granted. Each week preachers have to cover more of the narrative than they used to because many in the congregation don’t know it. This is especially true out of the Bible Belt and for churches growing with lots of non-churched people.

2. Children’s Ministry. In my childhood church there was no such thing as children’s ministry. And no one envisioned children’s church and the plethora of fun teaching environments my kids enjoy. That meant as my brother and I fidgeted in church, my mom and dad had to control/ entertain us. In this environment, the preacher received tacit (and overt) signals to stand up, speak up and shut up. With kids outside of the preaching event and experiencing specialized programs that need quite a bit of time themselves, there is opportunity to teach more – and longer. When I was young, worship services were one-hour, now I don’t know a church that’s less than an hour and a half, and many are two hours. As a matter of fact, our children’s minster recently told me that a slew of the programs available to purchase are now in 2-hour formats.

3. Better Presentations. Sermons are more entertaining/interesting than ever. As a youth all my preachers had in their arsenal was the Holy Spirit and their personal rhetorical skills. Nowadays, there are videos, props, object lessons, dance teams, dramas, etc…. Preachers can use the full weaponry of their creativity and because churches are now filled with adults who came of age in modern-day youth ministry, audiences are used to and expect engaging, visual presentations.

4. No Sunday Night Services. Again, when I was young, we worshipped on Sunday morning & Sunday night. That meant there were more opportunities for teaching in the life of the church. Let’s face it, most folks in our churches only get the weekly sermon in terms of spiritual formation and education. Of course, it shouldn’t be that way, but it is…for most! Increasing the sermon a few minutes helps make up what used to be standard.

The miraculous part is that many of the churches with longer sermons — think Francis Chan, Tim Keller, Rob Bell and Andy Stanley (all who go a MINIMUM of 40 minutes) — are growing. These pastors, and many much lesser known churches, are growing and impacting their communities. Longer sermons seem to be a trend…and I think, within reason it’s good.

The challenge for preachers is to maximize the time. If you’re not a gifted communicator, cut back. If you are, continue to master your craft. It matters less how much time you take, what matters is the time you waste.

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P.S. Sermons from Redwood Church can be subscribed to via iTunes.

The good folks over at The Weather Channel get far too excited about hurricanes! You’ve seen them. Jim Cantore, standing in boots, winds gusting while reeds sway in the background. Alexandra Steele covering the action with eyes glistening. If you didn’t know better, you’d think they were giddy about some beach city on the verge of destruction.
Why are they so exhilarated?

They live for hurricanes!

This is what they got in the biz for; why they went to school. 85-degrees and partly cloudy doesn’t quicken the pulse quite like a Cat 5. So when there’s a tropical depression turned tropical storm turned hurricane, it’s no wonder that they go nut-burgers when the tempests begin to rage.

So what’s your hurricane? Do you have one?

What is it that gets you going, charges you up, quickens your pulse & brings light to your soul? As I wrote previously, nerds are leading us because they have a disproportionate interest in something. If you don’t have a hurricane, I want to suggest that you spend the next year of your life finding out what it is and doing it. My wife routinely spends time jotting lists of things that she likes. She does this as an exercise in hurricane hunting. And once you find your hurricane, you need to go chase it.

Rearrange what you need to rearrange. Adjust what you need to adjust.

Buy what you need to buy. Move where you need to go.
As St. Irenaeus teaches us, “The glory of God is a (person) fully alive.”

Trust me, the best thing you can do for yourself, your spouse, and your children is to live  in the center of your hurricane. Your life has a mission. Whatever else you’re doing is off mission.

I know that life has seasons. And you can’t do everything at once. I’m a realist. At the same time, I know this: If you’re not doing something everyday to move you toward your hurricane, you’re slowly dying inside.

This is the way God made us.

Go find your hurricane.

It really should. Can you think of any organization that better fosters commitment and loyalty?

“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”

Though the title is tongue-in-cheek, La Cosa Nostra as an organization, though criminal, creates for its members a sense of identity, belonging, purpose and deep commitment. Here’s why:

They Know What They Do. There’s no ambiguity about the mission, and no uncertainty about what should happen when and what the leadership structure is. They askew distractions and petty arguments. They do what they do. And they do it better than anyone else.

They Know What They Don’t Do. For years, drug dealing was outlawed within the mafia.  The saying was, “If you deal, you die.” Dealing drugs, though lucrative, brought too much attention to a secretive organization and wasn’t worth the heat. They knew what they were not going to do which allowed them to continue doing what they did well even better.

They Tend Thier Neighborhood. Too many churches have forgotten their best potential audience: their neighbors. Don’t allow podcasts, Twitter, Facebook, and all things “Interweb” to distract you from opportunities across the street. Plus, God is pretty clear about that whole loving your neighbor thing. For years the mob enjoyed the protection of their neighbors because their presence was a benefit to their neighbors. The mob invested earnings back into the local community. This means giving things away to your church’s neighbors.

They Do “Favors”: Favors Build Loyalty. The Mob built their empire on “doing favors.” Unfortunately, many churches only want to extract from their communities and members. Your church needs to do things for the community while expecting nothing in return. This is the way you build trust, respect, and, oh yeah, loyalty.

They Remind People of the Consequences. In the mob, the consequence for not “playing ball” was harsh. How much worse is it when churches lose sight of the consequences when the people God has entrusted to them never engage God. There are bad consequences — in both this life and the next — when we fail to make people an offer they shouldn’t refuse.

There are any number of scriptures we Christians don’t take seriously, but maybe none are taken less seriously than

Romans 12.18-20. Here, the apostle Paul instructs the church this way: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’”

Living at peace is tough business, and “Christian America” has particularly struggled with it in the wake of September 11, 2001. The reasons are obvious. We were struck! Hit! Devastated! All by an enemy that had long been at war with us, though many of us knew and cared very little about them. It felt reassuring to hear President George W. Bush tell New Yorkers — and the rest of the world — that the people who did this would hear from us. We needed protection from the twisted minds that could envisage, plan, and celebrate the kind of destruction visited New York, Washington, and Shanksville, PA. Innocent people were targeted, children were killed, families undone. It was a slaughter, pure and simple. And in some sectors of the world, there was dancing in the streets.

It was no wonder then that so many of us — Christians, that is — supported combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. I did! And I wasn’t shocked to learn, even years after 9/11, that the majority of Christians supported torture in some instances. It’s not that we’re evil or vengeful, it’s that we’re human. We have spouses and children; parents and grandparents; friends and classmates that we love, that we want to protect and we have a country we want to flourish. What’s more, many of us believe that God has blessed us to live in the best, most humane, most prosperous and healthy country in the history of the world. And we want the best of that country to live forever and would love for others around the world to enjoy the benefits and blessings of our system. In sum, the September 11th attacks came from a place of evil, and as scripture teaches, evil must be resisted.

But the scriptures teach us about peace too.

I don’t find the New Testament to be naive concerning nations, nation-states, war and violence. There are times, unfortunately, when nations go to war. These times should be entered into soberly and with careful thought.

But most Christians, in our day-to-day actions, are not at war. Though our nation be at war with Muslim extremists, I am not at war with my Muslim neighbor. As a matter of fact, taking Jesus seriously means my neighbor is the one whom I am called to love. And much like a nation, I can only be at war with my neighbor if I choose to be.

Which I why I find the weeds of Christian/Muslims enmity which have sprung from the earth recently perplexing. As mentioned above, the apostle Paul’s instructions are very clear, “as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” This means that you and I can choose to be people of peace, to be agents of peace, to be extensions of peace. In the verse previous to this the apostle instructs us saying, “Do not repay evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.” This is a radical, counter-cultural call to peace-making. But it’s far more than that, it’s a call to sacrifice. In this very same chapter of Romans, Paul exhorts us to “bless those who persecute you” and “offer our bodies as a living sacrifice.” This, for Paul, is worship.

You and I can have our opinions regarding the propriety and necessity of when and where our nation goes to war, but that’s not my primary concern. After all, where two or more are gathered, there will be opinions. My primary concern is when you and I as individuals and in our Christian communities decide to go to war with our neighbors (or stand silently by when others do). I’m concerned about Qu’ran burnings in the name of Jesus and Mosques being vandalized. The apostle Paul assumes that those that you might be tempted to war against don’t share your values, but he calls us to peace anyway. He takes it for granted that evil has been visited upon you, he asks us to extend peace in return.

And Paul can do this for one reason: He believes in God. He believes that if there is vengeance to be paid, God is the one to pay it. I wonder sometimes if our reflex for violence and vengeance is a subtle suggestion that we think God isn’t competent to the task.

So this September 11th, I urge you, my fellow, fallible, fumbling followers of Christ, to do whatever you can to live at peace; to call your communities of faith to live in peace. Paul says, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

This is living at peace.

This Saturday, September 11th, as a member of Board of Directors for the Peninsula Clergy Network, I am joining clergy from across the Peninsula Bay Area for a ‘Day of Remembrance’, honoring those who suffered and died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Our program is simple, at the Redwood City Courthouse, we are providing a space for reflection, remembrance and prayer. There will be no speeches, no stumping, and, thank heavens, no books aflame.

There will be men and women there from every faith and creed. Why? Because only the twisted and insane rejoice in death, whichever faith they claim. I don’t believe our silent vigil this Saturday will change much, globally speaking. But I do believe that we can make a small statement about the things we share.

If you live in the area, please come out and join me. I’ll be manning the station from 8-9AM, this Saturday, September 11.

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.