Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Pastoral Tension #1: Sermon

The joke for pastors is that we only work one day a week. Preparing and presenting a sermon is our labor; if we're diligent, we'll follow up with a midweek email. Regardless, every Sunday morning by 11:45, anyone could leave our gathering and admit I've worked. "He said something," they exclaim. What I said is up for debate, but that I said anything is certain. Most recent training on sermons suggests having a single core/big/critical/central idea. If the people cannot walk away without parroting a catch phrase, the preacher has failed. Sermons have been reduced to slogans:

  • Follow Christ who favors you.

  • Courageous Christians make challenging choices.

  • Believe in a God who believes in you.

  • Become the answer you are praying for.

  • Save good money at Menards.

I struggle with reductive preaching. Recent critique has validated this. Three times in the past week I've learned that my sermons are overloaded with information. "I don't know what to do with it," one person admitted. "Pray about it," I replied.

Every week (rather, the one day a week I work) the sermon surfaces a pastoral tension: information versus transformation. I'm not dull; I know these two concepts are not mutually exclusive.* In the digital era, information is not at a premium. Nor has it been since the printing press mass produced the KJV 400 years ago. Sadly, access to Scripture has not alleviated biblical illiteracy. Nor has it curbed loose living and nominal Christian testimony.

No, that is what sermons are for--promoting biblical literacy and inspiring spiritual purity. Ideally, the sermon exposes truth from Scripture and its relevance for daily surrender to God. First and foremost, it is biblical. Second and important, it is practical.

I cannot believe that sermon-as-slogan will curb the trend of marginal Christianity. If anything, the problem will be exasperated. I fear the church will suffer from a slow death-by-topical syndrome. Slogans sell hardware and promote patronage, they do not transform lives.

Thus, I approach my work day with fear and trembling. The sermon is inherently limited by time constraints and cultural trends, by attention spans and information gaps. To be truly effective a sermon does not need better crafting and more concise packaging. Transformative preaching requires the presence of the Holy Trinity, who cannot be reduced to a slogan or exhausted by data overload.


* This will be true of every topic in the Pastoral Tension series.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Swag Bag

I go to conferences to win swag and enter drawings. I once won a Kindle; I'm holding out for an iPad. Most of the contents in a swag bag are mere promotional pieces. When I ran the Columbus Marathon last year, the bag included a shirt, a mint, and twenty applications for future races. My church gives out better swag to visitors.

And if you mention this blog the first time you visit Leesburg Grace Brethren Church, I'll throw in a free copy of Max Lucado's book, Mighty Tumbles in a Dusty Playground. Act immediately, and you'll get a Frisbee thrown in for free, too.

Conferences (and rallies and retreats) rarely yield any new ideas. The Internet has provided unlimited access to tools, trends, and resources in ministry. Ideas are a dime a dozen. For this reason, we like the shiny and shrink-wrapped items in the swag bag. We can take it home or hawk it on eBay.

My recent involvement in a leadership summit followed suit. I drooled over the prize table, covered with books and mugs and DVDs and apparel. I politely nodded at the information in the session. Unleashing God's Word was the theme, the premise being that God's word makes a difference in a teenager's life.

Nod. Yawn. When is the next drawing?

Then the speaker asked the leaders to evaluate their relationship with God, considering quality time in Scripture.

Sigh. Grunt. Is this a rhetorical question?

If my table was a microcosm of spiritual leaders in the country, it is no surprise that we are breeding a generation of "Moralistic Therapeutic Deists," to borrow a term from sociologist Christian Smith. Students will not rise above their teachers, Jesus warned (Matt. 10:24). The task of teaching/leading, James reminded us, is a heavy task (Jas. 3:1). We have a form of godliness (best practices, compelling vision, quality A/V, fun games, and relevant teachings), but we deny its power (2 Tim. 3:5).

It'll take more than swag and novel curriculum to connect the emerging generation to God. His word, neither shrink-wrapped or cutting-edge, is a powerful starting point.

"...we 'teach' young people baseball, but we 'expose' them to faith. We provide coaching and opportunities for youth to develop and improve their pitches and SAT scores, but we blithely assume that religious identity will happen by osmosis, emerging 'when youth are ready' (a confidence we generally lack when it comes to algebra)."
Source: Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church by Kenda Creasy Dean