Welcome to my world

brainIt’s really no secret to those who know me that I never had any aspirations to be THE pastor of a church.  My road to the position I hold at North Point was not the one I chose.  In many ways, it chose me.  I know whenever I speak critically of the position or the role of the pastor, I run the risk of coming across ungrateful or even disappointed in where the path has led.  Not true.

I get to serve alongside some of the most amazing people.  We partner together in genuine kingdom work.  It has been a privilege to teach my understanding of God’s Word to my friends in this church family.  My shortcomings are accepted.  My mistakes are forgiven.  The freedom to be who and what God has gifted me to be, even when I am up in front or carrying out some of the more traditional expectations, is an honor very few in my position are ever afforded.

Thankfulness falls so short…

But that doesn’t mean I rest easy with what I do.  Some of the actions I perform as a regular part of my weekly routine are things that desperately need to be called into question…both Biblically and practically.  Here’s one I will circle back to.  Again.

Why do we continue to make the preaching of a sermon the most important part of our weekly time together as a whole church family…when we have known for decades that monologue teaching is really one of the least effective forms of communication?  Do you even remember the point of last week’s sermon?  Yikes.

Why do we continue to lift up the position of the pastor as the single most important role in the church, when Jesus clearly modeled (and the NT writers clearly taught) the need for a holy man to lead the people was now obsolete?

I know that preaching (and the preacher) have been the sacred cow of the church for hundreds of years…and I am calling into question the role of countless preachers-pastors-evangelists-teachers-orators-and theologians throughout history.  I know this is one step away from heresy to suggest that maybe, just maybe, something is amiss in the plan.  I get it.

But what I see in history, and especially in the modern church, is not the picture I see painted in the Bible.  I know Jesus spoke to big crowds on occasion.  I know the Apostles did likewise.  But the concept of crowds coming to sit at the feet of a particular man, to hear his spin, er… personal  interpretation, on the Bible once a week, just doesn’t cut it for me.

And I’m guilty of doing it!

The body of Christ is full of voices that need to be heard.  Our own church family has stories that need to be told, answers to prayer that would inspire others, praise that needs to be articulated, and communion that needs to be shared.  I think we have a room full of personal insights into Scripture, and life, that would blow us away.  But we are falling short of making a way for this to happen.

I think we could do better.  A lot better.

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About preaching…

ThinkingSome random Monday morning thoughts about preaching…

Why does it feel like the sermon is the most important part of the Sunday morning church service?  How did it get elevated to the supreme position?  When did it happen?

Do we not see the potential downfall of entrusting this job to one person?

Don’t you think this priority we place on the preacher to interpret the Scriptures for a church family is ultimately leading to co-dependency and a lack of responsibility of the individual to pick up the Bible and study it on their own?

I’m not saying there isn’t a place for gifted people to teach, but sometimes I think we have made the stage an idol.

Is there a difference between a good sermon and a good speech?

Over the years, I’ve come to understand that sermon preparation is like writing a 15-page, college-level research paper every week.  But the “black cloud” of an unrelenting weekly deadline is more than tempered by the knowledge this project actually serves a purpose, other than getting a grade.

Speaking of grades, there is a subtle, uncomfortable awareness that I am being evaluated every Sunday.

It’s a humbling reality that my words, no matter how carefully and lovingly they have craftedand in spite of hours/days/years of diligent studycan be the source of pain or frustration to people on any given Sunday.

Knowing that some people reject me as a friend or even walk away from our church family because of something I say in a sermon, or because they might disagree with my interpretation of a text, is crushing.

We need less preaching and more participation in our weekly meetings.

I think if something is going to take pre-eminence in our weekly meetings, it should be communion, not preaching.

In youth ministry, I worked hard to make my lessons simple, true, to the point, creative, interesting and motivating.  As the Sunday morning dude, I always run the risk of spending my time making my sermons deep, thorough, theologically correct and time-sensitive.  What happened to me?

Generally, I can say just as muchin a more understandable wayin 23 minutes, than I can if I take 45-50 minutes to say it.  More is not better.

Any educator will tell you that monologue is the worst form of teaching.  People learn more when they participate in the learning process (dialogue, small groups, learning activities, etc…).  So, really, why do we make our traditional form of preaching so important?

Taking a year, or more, to preach through the book of Romans looks and sounds impressive.  I hope there has been some good because of it.  I hope there are people whose faith is deeper and obedience is more consistent because of something we studied.  Really.  I hope.

The truth is, nobody got more out of the study than me.  This leaves me more disappointed than satisfied.

In a culture where people attend church services irregularly, sermon series’ should probably be shorter, with more frequent on and off ramps.

Somebody really wise said this to me, after my sermon yesterday:  “You know, what you said in the last five minutes of your sermon was really, really good.  You should have cut the first 2o minutes and got right to the end.”  Ouch.

He was totally right.

Sermon prep this week should be interesting.

Bad sermon

BadHere’s the backstory…

Two weeks ago, I had surgery on my knee.  It was “old man surgery”a scope of the knee to file down and remove what little cartilage was left, clean up bone spurs, and do who-knows-what to a torn ligament.  I should be back to dunking basketballs in a couple of months.

I figured after all the surgeries I’ve had, I would be good to go for preaching the next Sunday.  Surely, five days recoup time would be more than enough.  The problem was getting a clear enough head to write the sermon during the recoup time.  Ooops.

Without completely re-living the disaster, let’s just say I stepped up to the front, looked down at my iPad and had no clue what my sermon was about.  Nothing.  Nada.  I’m staring at a page that makes no sense.  For some reason, whatever seemed good on Saturday night in my recliner quickly turned into a train wreck on Sunday morning.  Both services.

Between a clueless sermon, some kind of unplanned reaction to meds, and the collection of dumbfounded looks on North Point parishioners, it was definitely in my “Not Top Ten” ministry moments of all time. Probably top five.

I suppose yesterday was better.  My head wasn’t spinningand my sermon made sense.  At least to me.  When the bar is set low enough, it doesn’t take much to clear it.

Here’s how the story defines me and my world:

After my sermon was over last week, both immediately and throughout the week, I got no compassion.  What I got was a steady flow of sacred harassment.  And it hasn’t stopped this week, either.   And that’s what the church is supposed to be.  Normal.

Good friends don’t let friends get away with blowing it big time.  There’s a price to pay.   I have been the object of much joking, ribbing, text banter, dissing and loving disrespect.   And all of it well-deserved.

Friends don’t let friends take themselves seriously.  And friends don’t let their ministers be anything more than normal, everyday people.

I am grateful for the kinds of friends who accept me as I am and let me be just another guy.  Oh, there will probably always be those who expect me to have all the (Bible) answersor think that my prayers will be more effective at the side of a hospital bedor that my righteousness will be something more than Pharisaical.

But most simply let me be a fellow struggler getting by on the same common grace that everyone else does.  No special grace required.

Bad sermon and all…

Romans Rewind

Roman_boySo I started teaching through the book of Romans about a month ago.  Any Bible teacher worth more than a fish taco  has preached through the book of Romans, right?   I figured if I didn’t do it, I’d eventually get kicked out the club.

So here I am and here are few of my early observations  from wading into the deep end:

I realize this is going to sound shallow, but I wonder if Paul’s intent (or God’s) was for us to scrutinize his letter with such academic fervor.  Parsing verbs and diagramming sentences and translating words are important.  They are.  But turning his letter into a fourteen volume commentary or preaching 225 sermons through the book… so that we can accurately understand what Paul meant, is slightly overkilling it.  There.  I said it.  I’ll definitely never make it into the Theologian’s Hall of Fame.

I have always been slightly intimidated by the letter, because it seemed like it had been hijacked by a certain theological camp as “their” source book for doctrine.  I no longer feel that way.

I am often ashamed of what people who claim to be followers of Jesus do.  (Last week was a bad week, btw.)   However, I am more often ashamed of myself and my struggle to live every day as Jesus would.  But I am not ashamed of the Gospel.

There’s a long list of sins in the back half of chapter one.  It’s absolutely amazing to me that we not only accept, but welcome into our churches, people who practice most all of these sinswithout requiring them to confess, or even admit that what they are doing is sin.   Yet we judge, condemn and refuse friendship with people who exhibit one particular sin on the list.  Like I said, amazing.

And from yesterday’s teaching, there is no distinction.  Nobody measures up.  Nobody is good enough.  Nobody’s sin is worse than another’s.  And the answer is the same for all of us.

Hope to see you next Sunday.

Who’s preaching Sunday?

el_jefe_throw_blanketI have some Bible teachers I really like to listen to online.  It would be a real honor to hear them in person someday.

If I were traveling through a city where one of those preacher-teacher-pastor types did his or her weekly Bible exposition, you can bet I would call ahead to find out if they were preaching.  I wouldn’t want to hear the backup or the second string or, worse yet, the pinch hitter.  I would want to hear the big cheese.

And I wouldn’t be happy if that church didn’t come clean over the phone.  I don’t want them to try to con me or manipulate into coming by withholding info or covering up.  I want the real deal, or I’m gonna keep looking.

I don’t apologize for my actionsor my attitude.  I’m only coming to hear the speaker.  If I get some blessing or challenge or some kind of residual benefit by being there, all the better.

On the other hand…

If you claim a church family as your own…  If you see yourself as part of a particular church family…  You better never make your decision to come to the weekly big show based on who’s preaching!  Ever.  You better never call ahead to find out if El Jefe is going to be in the saddle, so you can decide whether there’s something better to do with your time.

Here’s what I’m thinking…

There are pastor-teachers who are incredibly gifted oratorsfull of charisma and personality and wit and wisdom.  Especially in our suburban world, there are some preachers that are simply amazing and great to listen to.  That’s who I’m looking for if I’m traveling on an off Sunday.  I get it.

But the preacher is not the star of the show and the sermon is not the center of the service.  The minister is not who we come to adore and the message should never be more important than our own personal study of the word.  We live in a church culture that worships at the feet of celebrity pastors, who teach as if you can’t live without their words.  Baloney and more baloney.

When I go and visit a church to hear the preacher, I’m going pretty much as a….uhvisitor.  But that’s not the relationship we have with our church family.  We are not outsiders.  We are not on-lookers.  We are not there as spectators.  We are there because we belong.   And it doesn’t matter who’s preaching.  First stringthird string..or.the bat boy.  Because it should never be about the preacher or the sermon or the show.  It’s about family.

So if you’ve got to missthen miss.  Go to work.  Sleep in.  Get some rest, if you need it.  Hang out with your neighbors.  Do a special worship time with your kids.  Visit your relatives, if that’s the plan.  But don’t you dare choose not to come because of who’s preaching that Sunday.  Don’t disrespect your church family that way.  Don’t make it about you.  Okay?

BtwI’m not preaching Sunday, but I hope to see you there anyway!

Come on. Really?

PreacherI’m going to begin teaching through the letter to the Romans on Sunday mornings in a few weeks.

Unlike many who come from a particular, and popular, theological tradition these days, I don’t believe the letter to the Romans is the most important part of the Bible.  Nor do I believe it is the lens through which every other part of the Bible is to be filtered and interpreted.

I happen to believe the life and words of Jesus are the standard and everything else falls right in line behind him.  But that’s another post.

So, in my study this morning, I come across the website of this reeeaaallly famous contemporary pastor-teacher and I stopped to check out what he had to say about preaching through Romans.  Now I don’t necessarily run in his theological campand I definitely don’t agree with many of the doctrinal cornerstones he finds in Romans, but I do respect him and his commitment to serious study of the word.

However, I was kind of blown away by something I found there.

He has archived his entire preaching series through Romans.  It’s a mere 225 sermons.  225.  Over four years of Sundays.  On the surface, the magnitude of that number is beyond impressive.  As somebody who teaches the Bible every week, I’m humbled by his focus and diligence.  Not to mention the hard work and discipline it must have taken to keep every sermon fresh and creative.

But there’s another side.  The entire letter takes about an hour for the average reader to complete.  But it takes ONE GUY nearly 200 hours to explain it?  That’s a lot of hammering.

He’s not alone.  Whole volumes have been written on single words out of the Bible.  Booksby multiple authorshave been written on single concepts out of the Bible.  Hey, I am personally guilty of spending 42 weeks preaching through the Sermon on the Mount.

Did Jesus really need me to take that long to explain what he was sayingsomething that takes about 20 minutes to read?  Really?

I wonder if, in our effort to be scholarly and thorough and dedicated to Bible exposition, we aren’t simply pushing our own agendas. I wonder if we aren’t guilty of taking something that is really pretty simple and making it much more complicated than the Bible writers and characters intended it to be.

Here’s one thing I know:  There’s no way I’m taking 225 weeks to preach through Romans.

Preaching

preachingi’ve read a bunch of books on preaching.   i’ve watched videos of well-known preachers.  i’ve listened to audios of hundreds.  when i was younger, i even subscribed to a couple of preacher’s cassette (remember those?) lending libraries.

i used to attend conferences that were headlined by influential preachers…and sat through hours of presentations.  i even took notes.

i’ve had undergraduate and graduate level courses on expository preaching and homiletics.  my master’s degree is in preaching and church growth…not youth ministry or advanced funology.

i’ve studied the history of preaching…and preaching theory.   i’ve studied preaching models.  i understand how to exegete a text and do word studies in greek and hebrew.  i’ve studied about argument and persuasion and presentation and application.  i know the different components of a sermon

i’ve watched tapes of myself preaching (yuck).  i’ve heard recordings of my preaching.  i’ve had my preaching evaluated by people i respect and received the unsolicited critique of those i probably wouldn’t seek out.  in just the last 14 years, i bet i’ve written and preached over 600 sermons.  some would say it’s the most important thing i do…the most important thing anybody could ever do.

i grew up in a church where the preacher was incredibly smart and liked to show it off in his preaching.  he used huge words and referred to “the greek” constantly, told historical illustrations in lengthy detail and had a passionate quiver in his voice at the end of every sermon as he beckoned people to come to the front of our church building to accept jesus as their personal savior or to repent of their sins or to join our church.

and the same 80-100 people had that experience every sunday.

i didn’t know what i wanted to do with my life as a kid, but i was quite sure preaching was not it.

ahh…the shouts of cosmic irony are deafening.

there is no doubt i am a reluctant preacher.  i am constantly humbled by the sobriety and importance of proclaiming the good news of the kingdom.  i am often the one “most overwhelmed” by the message i preach…not because it was so good, but because it was so true.

i know my oratorical skills are pretty pedestrian.  some of that is because i was probably goofing around in line when the spiritual gifts were being given out.  but some of that is by design, too.   years ago, i made the decision i would prepare every sermon for the mind and attention span of a ninth-grade boy.  talk about “broad-casting”!

but the good news isn’t so good, if you can’t understand it.

it is an honor to proclaim the truth of jesus each week to my church family.  i’m grateful you don’t expect perfection.  i’m humbled that you listen and respond.  i am constantly encouraged that you are willing to let me express my doubts and wrestle publicly with those areas of scripture for which i don’t have a perfect answer.   i love it that you understand i am on the same journey as you.

it is comforting to know that you do not see me as the “holy man” or the “answer man” or the guy on the pedestal.   thanks.

for the record, if i were to evaluate my own sermons and rank them in order of most important…yesterday’s would definitely be in the top two or three of my whole life.  no kidding.  so if you missed it, you can check it out on the NP website later in the week…or better yet, how about lunch and i can preach it to you personally?

or not.