Who Exactly is Our Enemy?

mlk love

It seems to my three and a half pound brain that one massive problem with Christians today is we can’t agree on who our enemy is. Or worse yet, too many Christians think of our enemy as a category of people. In spite of the Apostle Paul’s clear teachings, too many of us think our enemy is fellow human beings. Then, on the occasion that an enemy is a human, we neglect Jesus’ teaching on how to treat that enemy!

In the wake of recent cultural moves and world events, I’m struck by how desperately we need Martin Luther King to guide us on what love of enemy looks like.  But before we hear from MLK, a few notes of interest: Continue reading

#TBT The Conference I’m Still Looking For

For #TBT, we’ll revisit some older themes and give them a fresh look. I first posted this in September of 2011 and I suppose you could say, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

I’m told there are over 350 church leadership conferences per year in the United States.

!!!!

350+  that is A LOT and a majority of those conferences feature the same basic approach centered around an inspiring talk given by a gifted church speaker. This model of conference is great and some groups absolutely nail it (Catalyst and Willow Creek for example.) But I often find myself sitting in such a conference looking around at the people in the audience. What are they wrestling with…what questions do they have? I listen to the excellent talk, and I wonder how a smaller group of us could ever get in a room with that speaker to ask follow up questions, dig into what he or she said – sort of like we did in seminary after the class lecture, when we’d grab a coffee with fellow students or the professor and ask questions, process what we’d heard and really make it apply deep into our lives.

Actually, I did once go to a conference like that – it was the best conference I’ve ever attended. In 2005, Leadership Network hosted a conference with a simple premise: no music, no MC, no fun videos.  Just great content from top church practitioners over 2 days.  Here’s how it worked:

On Day 1, we went room to room all day to listen to each presenter talk for about 20 minutes. The conference had about 30 speakers and each speaker simply gave their 20 minute talk several times per day, so in a full day, you could catch about 15 speakers.  You’d simply look at the list of speakers and bios, and choose who’s 20 minute talk you wanted to sit through.

These talks were designed to be a preview for day 2 – sort of a taste and teaser of what the person had to offer.

Day 2 was where the genius of the event showed itself.  Same speakers, but this time they each had 90 minutes and they were directed to only answer our questions, not initiate any content themselves.  In other words, the audience got to shape the content of the presentation.  So on day 2, we could listen to 6 or 7 speakers in a full day.

After the first day’s preview talks, I knew I wanted to hear everything Tim Keller had to say. This was 2005 and Keller was not a widely known name like he is now. So I went to Dr Keller’s room along with maybe 12 – 15 other folks.  Tim Keller introduced the morning by saying, “Yesterday you heard my brief spiel. Today, I’ve been instructed not to initiate any talk at all. I’m to talk about only what you want me to talk about. What would you like to discuss?”

Silence…until Mr Question here realized what a gift we’d just been given.

90 minutes of a Tim Keller press conference where WE were the press. 90 minutes of pastoral practitioners asking a fellow pastoral practitioner anything about anything, then follow up questions, then more detail, then peeling back a layer to dig in further. 90 minutes where we get to hear from one of Christianity’s finest pastoral minds, but where we drove the content. We had him talk about apologetics, engaging the skeptical mind, worship style, leadership challenges, staffing a growing church.  It was an amazing 90 minutes because he always scratched where we were itching.  

The time flew by, a thank you and a handshake and then onto the next room. Larry Osborne, Mike Slaughter, Dave Ferguson….the list went on and on.

Best. Conference. Ever.

Never seen it done before.  Never found it since.  It worked because the approach of the conference got behind a preplanned talk and hit a target the audience was aiming for.  If you think about it, most pastors go to a conference for ideas, encouragement, tactics and a challenge to do something different.  Surely a great way to accomplish this goal is to let the audience partially dictate the content.  And sure, we’ve probably all sat through a Q&A session at a conference that went badly: an audience member making a passive aggressive point, or wanting to argue something obscure.  This wasn’t that.  This was a full day of church leaders hungry to learn asking specific questions to church leaders who had something helpful to offer.

So often what pastors need is more of a “press conference” approach where the audience can help shape the content and make the speaker talk about what we’re wrestling with. 

So how about it, conference organizers?  How about holding a church leadership conference like this?  You could even call it, “Press Conference.”  I’d go.

Dropping Some Zeros?

I think our marketing budgets and production budgets have too many zeros on the end of them.  Here is what I mean:

A couple of times per year I receive a large box in the mail from a national church leader conference. The box contains several posters to hang in the church, some personal invitation cards for their upcoming conference and a few goofy gifts. The gifts are of the whoopy cushion, yoyo, and popcorn variety. The whole thing arrives in some pretty high end packaging and of course, my kids enjoy unboxing it all. The experience of opening the package communicates excellence and frivolity, but every time I receive the package I get a sinking feeling in my stomach.

In the last ten years I have attended a sum total of one conference from this organization. It was a fantastic conference, I learned a great deal and had a fun time. They made a strong appeal to give money for drinking water in Africa. They spoke with conviction about this generation and how we should promote justice around the world. I understand they do this every year. I love that – an organization using their platform to shine light and send resources to the neediest among us.

But this is also my beef because the medium negates the message. In this specific case, the message to give money for fresh drinking water is incongruent with the massive concert level production experience of the conference and the expensive marketing budget of the box that arrives in the mail. Could it be that our global effort has too much to do with us feeling good about our global effort, while wrapped in a powerful concert experience, than it does self sacrificing for our global brothers and sisters?

One box in the mail, twice per year multiplied by tens of thousands of alumni attendees. Each box representing significant dollars of marketing expense, from staffing to production to mailing cost. Why not drop some zeros from the end of the marketing budget? You could mail me a note in a simple brown envelope and send the rest of the marketing budget to provide fresh drinking water. In fact that move in itself would send a powerful message.”Instead of sending you a gift you don’t need, we’ve sent the marketing budget to the neediest, most vulnerable people in the world.” I would attend that conference each year simply based on principle.

I don’t mean to pick on one conference company. I find this sort of incongruence all through the modern western church. It was 1990something when I first heard the phrase, now deeply embedded in most of our churches, that “excellence honors God.” And sure, we all needed to lift our game a little a whole lot.

But excellence is expensive. Crazy expensive. In our days of technological marvel, excellence is elusive. How excellent is too excellent? Where do you draw the line?

As long as my brothers and sisters across the globe are living on less than $2 per day and dying of preventable diseases, I’d rather us be less excellent in our marketing and more excellent in our solidarity.  

That is why one family stopped coming to our church. After one service, they compared us to a church they used to attend in another state. The church invested 6 or 7 figures into their weekend experience, looking at their youtube videos. The person said, “One day you guys will be like that church.”

No we never will, I explained. Our “low tech” approach isn’t all we can afford, it is a conscious decision to draw the line and free up resources on behalf of the massively under resourced among us. Our Sunday experience is void of programmable moving lights, but I’ve noticed that some friends of ours in Africa don’t seem to mind.

I think our marketing budgets and production budgets have too many zeros on the end of them.  Instead of spending 5, 6 or 7 figures on these items, I challenge us to spend 3,4 or 5 figures.  We could all do to drop a couple of zeroes.  That money can make a life changing difference around the world and our people will appreciate the congruence between our production and our solidarity.

Exile Stage 2 Article

I wish I was smart enough to write this article.  I am, however, smart enough to share it.  Steve McAlpine succinctly critiques the old “gospel/culture” discussions and captures that current state of affairs in his article.  Excerpt and link to full article below.

Second Stage exiles do not place their hope in a city here, be it Athens or Babylon, but seek a city that is to come (Hebrews 13). Second Stage Exiles do not need the approval of the culture, neither do they need to provoke the culture in order to feel good about themselves. No, true exiles can live out their time in exile with confidence, love and hope because they trust in him “who is able to keep [them] from stumbling and to present [them] before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy.” (Jude 1:24).

Christian, Second Stage Exile is coming. Are you ready for it?

Full article here.

 

Orwell and the Modern Church.

As part of my learning journey, I’ve been studying the mechanics of preaching, seeking to understand what makes preaching effective. I’ve come to the conclusion that an effective preacher does the hard work of shrinking the perceived gap between him/herself and the listener. 

“Perceived” may be the most important word in that last sentence. After all, last time I had a DNA check, I came up 100% human.”Preacher” is a subset of “human” not a distinct species. More on that here.

But there is a perceived gap. By standing on a stage, opening a Bible, using a microphone, providing spiritual insights etc, a preacher naturally creates a perceived gap. Because of this gap some people will think you are more spiritual than you are and conversely they will think they are less spiritual. If you do not work to reduce this perceived gap, some of your people will write themselves off in the journey of following Jesus.

Some sermon tools that assist in bridging the gap: vulnerability, unpretentiousness, approachability off the stage, self effacing humor, sharing of struggle etc. These are all helpful.

But how about this:  what if you openly address the gap once in a while?  What if you explained to your people that you have been trained in handling the Bible. You spent years of your life studying not only the content, but the context and that is why you know so much Bible, not because you are more spiritual, but because you have been trained.

What if you told your folks that, in all likelihood, if they had the training you’ve had, they would provide great spiritual insights to the congregation as well?  Another way to consider it, if the church were about medicine rather than Jesus, we’d all revere the Doctor who studied anatomy; the preacher would be just another person in the pew.

Modern churches can be tempted to forget Paul’s incredible declaration, “Now you are the body of Christ and each one of you is a part of it.” Modern churches live out a George Orwell novel more than Paul’s beautiful vision for the church.  In the modern church, “Everyone is equal but some are more equal than others.” Preachers and worship leaders can become “more equal” than everyone else. Lord help us if we start believing this ourselves. We live in a dangerous cultural context of deep spiritual hunger combined with celebrity craze. This generates a need for our preachers and worship leaders to be rock stars and this creates a perceived gap. But we aren’t rock stars, we’re fellow sojourners.

I am not naive.  I understand as Lead Pastor that I carry an unusual amount of power and that I should steward it responsibly.  I also understand as the primary interpreter of scripture on behalf of our congregation, I carry a vital role.  I take seriously James’ admonition that “those who teach will be judged more harshly.”  Youzers.

But in the economy of God’s Kingdom, who is to say who is most important and who isn’t?  Nancy has been faithfully serving in our children’s ministry longer than I’ve been the preacher.  In God’s economy, she is VITAL to the Body here at Discovery, but in our modern lens, we can think I am more spiritual because I teach the Bible for us.

I like the late Dallas Willard’s constant reminder.  He says that the life Jesus called us to live really can be lived by anyone.  That it is within reach of everybody.  The call to follow Jesus is difficult, challenging, stretching, but accessible to all and open to all.  An effective preacher will not shirk the weighty responsibility of preaching, or being an example of a follower of Christ, but all the same, she or he will work hard to reduce the perceived gap between preacher and people to show that we are all fellow sojourners, following King Jesus together, each vitally important to the Body.

Brian Mavis on Jesus’ Last Hours

I love the way Brian Mavis thinks and writes.  Here is a guest post from Brian on the 24 hour period that make up Jesus’ Last Hours:

A few years ago, inspired by the show “24,” I tried to lay out a timeline of Jesus’ last hours. I found it interesting to see all that happened in fewer than 24 hours. Thought you might like to see it too. This is my best guess at the timeline, helped by hour-marker clues given in the Bible.

JESUS’ LAST HOURS
Thursday
11:00 PM Jesus Prays in Gethsemane
Friday
12:30 AM Jesus is Betrayed Judas and Arrested
1:00 AM Jesus is Interrogated by Annas
1:00 AM Peter Denies Knowing Jesus
1:30 AM Peter Denies Knowing Jesus a Second Time
2:00 AM Jesus is Tried by Caiaphas. He is Mocked, Hit & Spat On
4:00 AM Peter Denies Jesus for the Third Time
4:00 AM Jesus is Imprisoned
5:00 AM The Sanhedrin Sentence Jesus to Die
5:30 AM Jesus is Taken to Pilate
6:00 AM Judas Hangs Himself
6:00 AM Pilate Hears the Case Against Jesus
6:30 AM Jesus is Taken to Herod to Be Tried
7:00 AM Pilate Resumes Jesus’ Trial
7:30 AM Jesus Is Beaten and Given a Crown of Thorns
8:00 AM Jesus is Sentenced to Die and Beaten
8:30 AM Jesus Carries Cross
9:00 AM Jesus is Crucified
9:00 AM Jesus Ask God to Forgive Us
9:30 AM The Soldiers Cast Lots for Jesus’ Clothing
10:00 AM Jesus is Insulted and Mocked
10:30 AM Jesus Tells One of The Crucified Criminals That He Will Be in Paradise with Jesus
11:30 AM Jesus Speaks to Mary and John
Noon Darkness Covers the Land
1:00 PM Jesus Cries Out to the Father, Asking Why He Has Been Forsaken
2:30 PM Jesus Says He Is Thirsty
2:50 PM Jesus Says “It is Finished”
2:55 PM Jesus Prays “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
3:00 PM Jesus Dies
3:00 PM An Earthquake Occurs
3:00 PM The Huge Temple Curtain Tears in Half Opening The Holy of Holies
3:10 PM The Roman Centurion Exclaims “Surely he was the Son of God!”
3:15 PM The Soldiers Break the Thieves’ Legs
3:20 PM The Soldier Pierces Jesus’ Side
4:00 PM Jesus is Laid in the Tomb


If you are interested in how I established the timeline, here is the gist of it: Continue reading

The Unsustainable Sermon Conclusion

I’ve been on a journey lately to notice powerful preaching and what makes it great.  It has been a wonderful learning journey so far and of course, along the way I have paid attention to the opposite:  what traits make for a damaging sermon?

I’ve come to the conclusion that a wise preacher is careful not to challenge people to something unsustainable or something she or he will not do themselves.

Oh man.  How many of my early pulpit attempts contained some kind of challenging conclusion that was unsustainable?  Thank God that my early sermons were in a vintage before podcasting – there is no record of those terrible attempts.

Back when the Prayer Of Jabez book was popular, I sat in an auditorium and heard a preacher give quite a powerful message on prayer.  But then at the conclusion he said, “Stand up if you’ll commit to pray the Prayer of Jabez every day for the rest of your life.”

You know what happened next.  Some people stood. Then a lot of people stood because they felt the social pressure to stand.  Everyone felt good making a public declaration to this daily prayer.  The preacher felt good seeing such a visible response to his challenge.

But $20 says that neither those people nor the preacher are praying that prayer every day now, 12 years later.

Pulling this sort of move feels good in the moment and creates a “wow” moment, but I think you win the battle and lose the war on this one.  Because this sort of move also creates unnecessary guilt in people who cannot fulfill this unkeepable promise.  And further more, us preachers are not in the habit of publicly repenting of our previous sermons.  By that I mean, we don’t get in front of our people and confess, “I know two years ago we all pledged to do X at the end of a sermon, but I’ve honestly forgotten to keep doing that pledge.”

And so in this vacuum of honesty people instead blame themselves for not being able to keep an unkeepable commitment.  They decide they are not as close to Jesus as the preacher, who is not keeping that promise either. Worse yet, they build a subconscious wall of cynicism toward preaching.

No, as I listen to great preaching, I’m struck by the common thread that a great sermon’s call to action is do-able, sustainable, concrete and within reach of every listener.  It certainly can and should contain a call to higher living, or shedding of one’s current ways, but it is careful to be authentic to what can actually be done.

Sheep or Shepherd?

funny-sheep-pictures-15

I think one of the temptations in church leadership is to forget our DNA.  We can forget we are 100% human being.  I think this is because we open the pages of The Authority every week and teach from it.  Over time, we can get confused and think that our thoughts about The Authority are the authority, but they are not.

Too many leaders believe they are exempt from “sheep status” and act as if they are a shepherd.  I have attended too many church leader conferences where the conference speaker talks in a derogatory way about “the sheep,” meaning “the people in our churches.”  Its a cheap hit that gets an easy laugh from the fellow church leader attendees.    But wait, aren’t we sheep too?

Yes, some people can be frustrating and difficult. They can be amazing too.  I would like to hear more church leaders share stories of what they have learned about God from the people they are leading in their church.  I have dozens, if not hundreds of examples of lessons and inspiration I have drawn from my fellow sheep.

When it comes to preaching, Jesus is the Good Shepherd, we are his sheep.  Our job is to hear the shepherd’s voice. If you want to get technical, we sometimes inhabit the role of under shepherd or perhaps even sheepdog (!!) But even when we do, we are still very, very sheepesque.

We are fully human like the people we preach to.  Our DNA never changes due to theological training, preaching, leadership experience and spending time each week studying and listening to God.  Am I better at listening to God’s voice than other sheep?  Maybe, maybe not. I know that I am paid to spend time listening to it on behalf of my fellow sheep, but I am not the shepherd.

Of course, the Bible clearly teaches that leaders are overseers and shepherds responsible for the well being of our flock.  I have no intention of claiming otherwise, but this command is one of function not of DNA.  We function as a shepherd in our protection and care of people, but we are still sheep through and through.

We suffer the same foibles and sins as our people and we ought to posture our message as one most in need of hearing it.  We never gradate to be above the people we preach toward.  Our preaching posture is that of “fellow sheep” not that of “shepherd teaching the sheep.”

SermonSmith Podcast Review

I’m always on the hunt for a great resources in the craft of preaching and recently discovered a gem in a podcast called “Sermonsmith.”  The host, John Chandler interviews various preachers to learn about their preparation habits, goals of preaching, philosophy and influences.  But John also digs into the nuts and bolts of preparation, process, how the preacher spends her or his week etc.  The interview is a great balance between vision and execution.

John is a church planter and a natural interviewer.  He gets quality content out of his guests, is never in the spotlight and creates a very low key conversational mood.  I’m only 3 episodes in, but already marvel at the variety of approaches and preparation styles used.  There really is no one correct way to prepare a sermon.

But for preaching nerds out there, it will feed your inner geek to hear how others approach the craft and creativity of week in/week out preaching.