Monday, November 10, 2008

Speaking styles--what "plays in Boston" may not play here

As a high school student, I knew I was headed into "the ministry." The mother of a close friend of mine said: "Bob, when you get into the pulpit, you shouldn't laugh or tell jokes because this is serious business."

At that moment in time, I had a choice to make: either change my personality or change my choice of professions because I "cannot-not" laugh or tell jokes or funny stories when I speak. In fact, one of my unwritten rules in MY speaking is: "if we haven't laughed--we haven't done 'church.'"

My wife has worked in hospitals for decades and she will tell about a funny incident from church or share something funny I said and, inevitably, a fellow worker will say: "you LAUGH in church?" Yeah, we do.

But it got me wondering about speaking styles. I have heard ministers [even highly respected ones] who cannot spell "illustration" or "story" and wouldn't know how to use them even if their sermon depended on it [which, of course, in my case--their sermon should depend on them more]. On the other hand, I have heard the messages where it is simply one story after another without any substance thrown in between.

In earlier generations, pastors were told to NEVER talk about family from the pulpit. I bridged that teaching and had some professors who advocated that position while others said that family should be used since it makes the pastor more of a "person." I shared about my family all the time and, especially if it was funny. [With this caveat--I tried always to get their permission ahead of time so they knew what was coming].

So--funny or not funny?
Family or no family?

We could go on and ask: manuscript or no manuscript?
How long? 15 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes, "eternity" [see my blog on knowing how to stop]
Add to this things like: appearance [tie, suit, nothing formal]; formality or not [meaning--standing behind a huge wooden pulpit or being able to 'wander' on stage]

I recently prepared a DVD for churches which tapes me delivering a sermon. I am wearing nice pants, nice shoes and a nice blue shirt. No tie and no jacket.

A leadership team in Illinois watched the tape and someone commented: "I wonder if he always dresses like that to preach?"
To which someone else replied: "what do you expect--he's from Florida!"

I should have "closed" there but I will add one more thought. Whenever we hired new staff for a church, we always sent them tapes of sermons. We wanted them to know the "style they were getting into" because, after all, they wouldn't have much choice to change once they arrived. What played in their background would have great influence as to what they wanted playing now.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Safety of preaching through "books"

Decades ago I was requested to preach a sermon on a particular subject. "Why?" I asked.
"Because I have a friend who is struggling in this area."
"Oh, so rather than you talking with your friend, you think a 'pointed' message will take care of the issue without arousing curiousity as to why I picked that particular topic??!!"
"Hmmmm, I see your point."

The end of THIS story is that the "requestee" talked with the friend about the issue and it got resolved without a pointed message from 'Pastor Bob.'

I have often been asked by people: "do you ever preach on...................?" and you can fill in the blank as desired.
My standard response is: "I tend to preach through books of the Bible which means that if a topic is covered in that book then I will preach on the topic."

I find that there are many advantages to this form of teaching over topical messages which seem to predominate my audio landscape these days:

First--people can't accuse me of preaching "at them." Well, they can accuse me but it isn't accurate. Good preaching pierces the hearts of some and, especially when someone is wrestling with sin, temptation or "issues." If I touch on something close to their hurt, it is easy to think I am speaking to 'them' because I know something. Going through a book allows the opportunity to say honestly that the topic covered is being given because that is where we are in our study.

Second--preaching through a book does not allow me to escape 'hard passages.' Each book of the Bible has "THOSE VERSES" or, "THAT VERSE" which is going to be skipped over if I don't preach through the book. Whether it is dealing with 'baptism for the dead' or verses that seem to promote Calvinism or Arminianism or, whatever--I can't skip them but must deal with them. The tension in our faith is what has allowed us to have hundreds of denominations holding the same core beliefs while differing in "non-essential" points. Many of those points are derived from harder passages which I must cover if going through a book.

Third--eventually, we will cover the "whole truth" of Scripture as we go through a book. Whether it is trials or testing or application of truth or partiality or faith versus works or the tongue or wisdom or sin or unfairness or endurance or God's sovereignty [these are just some of the topics you go through in looking at James] a speaker will have to deal with these topics as he goes through a book.

Finally--no verse is neglected. My older brother teaches Bible courses and has made a point of allowing time for "rabbit trails" but also covering adequately all the verses in a book. Having been in Bible school, too often the last verses are glossed over because time is up. However, if we truly believe that all scripture is "God-breathed" then we need to look at all scripture adequately.

This week, I was asked by a church search team if I preach on "stewardship." I said, "yes, when it comes up in the book I am preaching. There is a safety given by the Lord when we take a book and go through it knowing that we will be able to deal with topics of importance without being fairly accused of emphasizing one point over another.

Monday, October 27, 2008


My first full-time ministry was as a youth and Christian education pastor at a church of about 600-800 people. One of my tasks was occasionally doing the scripture reading for the day. Knowing I was to read...I would go over the assigned passage ahead of time so I wouldn't stumble over any unfamiliar words.

Alas, one Sunday brought a guest speaker and a different passage than that assigned. Normally not a problem except I had a brain freeze when it came to reading and pronouncing one word. The passage was in Mark 2 and it dealt with the parlyzed man being brought to Jesus. My translation talked about the "paralytic" and, if you pronounced it correctly then that is fine. I just couldn't get the accent right so I kept talking about the "par-ALytic." I knew in my mind it wasn't right but I couldn't think how to correct it. I sat down, embarrassed for myself and kept trying to think about the correct way to pronounce this word. A few minutes later, during verse 2 of whatever hymn we were singing, I remembered how to pronounce it. Since I also had a prayer during the service, I so badly wanted to pray for the poor "paralytic." I wanted to give thanks for God's grace to the paralytic and the healing brought to the paralytic and, if given the option I would have mentioned this healed paralytic a half dozen times.

I did not do what I wanted and learned a valuable lesson--people ARE listening. The church got about a half dozen notes with people letting me know how to correctly pronounce the word. Sigh...amazing how a blip in thinking can cause a situation remembered 25 years later.

One of the things I have noticed, though, is that many people DO mispronounce words when it isn't necessary. When reading Scripture, I have seen many readers also try to maintain eye contact with the audience and stumble over words. I have been in dozens of worship services where the singer has missed the words plainly printed in front of them. Many pastors have gotten ahead of themselves and misread the words set in front of them which then causes me to become distracted and tune out for awhile.

I understand mistakes--that is what my misread was. I don't quite understand either taking the time to go over what is to be read or, learning how to read what is in front of us correctly.

I guess at times we just get "parALyzed."

Friday, October 10, 2008

Outlines and power point

"In the old days," pastors would inquire of other pastors as to who led music or, who did the announcements or, who prayed during the service.
These days, a question often asked is: "who does your clicking?" By this, meaning, who controls the power point presentation of the pastor's outline?
Before technology, outlines were sometimes used but the visual aspects of it were not quite as evident. Someone would open a bulletin or take an insert and they would choose to follow along with the outline or not.
Nowadays, when the outline is broadcast behind the pastor or on his side or somewhere completely visible--it is impossible to ignore.

It is that visible outline I want to address here, because I have learned and am still learning interesting things about the power that outline holds.

First--people [nice "Christian" people] can get really upset if a pastor forgets to fill in a blank or, goes too fast for the blank to be filled. I have ended "wonderful messages" where the cloud of God descended only to be greeted at the door with: "you went too fast on point 2 b 1) for me to fill it in--what should I have put there?!?" Oops--my bad, so sad--because at that moment the odds of me remembering that particular point are quite slim. Not being said is: "and where was your attention when that blank went up"--no, we never say that.

Second--the outline seemingly forces the pastor to stay within time constraints, or else. There have been times when I didn't judge the time and outline correctly and I have been only half-way through the outline and......"time is up."
Choices at that time. Quickly make the sermon a "two-parter." Quickly go through the rest of the blanks. Decide to put the answers on the church website. Try to ignore what is there and face the wrath of those from the first point who will be REALLY TICKED!

Third--missspeled words and grammatical errors is the bane of my "pue sitting." I am not a totally structured person but....I do like structure and I do like things to be correct--especially if I am going to be looking at it for a few minutes in a sermon. I have not been perfect but I have learned to go through every visible presentation and look for misspelled words and grammatical errors because they will drive the structured people crazy.

Fourth--when the last blank is filled in--the message is over! People pace themselves in a service based on the blanks in the outline. When the last blank is filled in--I can be presenting the most important thing will get lost in the sound of Bibles closing, pens being capped, papers being filed and all manner of activity signaling that I might as well be done.

So...what are the options?
One--don't do an outline to begin with [I like having them because they DO keep me focused]
Two--being extra careful in going over them and, even having others do the same--we usually have at least two people go over what is presented so we can make sure it sounds right
Three--a little tip I don't always follow but...................end the message itself with one blank left. Fill in this blank after the closing prayer at which time people will be scrambling to get things put away as you head into the official close of the service.

The woman who "clicked" for me at my prior church always kidded about speeding up the sermon by clicking to the next point if I was getting bogged down. Thinking this would force me to go on, the reality was--I never looked at the monitors to see where she was compared to where I was. I suppose it might have helped those wishing to fill in blanks catch a slight snooze until I caught up.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Beginnings and endings of messages


Decades ago, I was talking with a well respected, young doctor who went to the church where I was a youth pastor. He shared a thought confirmed in schools that teach preaching but which I often find neglected.
His words? "Bob, never start a message with the words: 'turn in your Bibles to....' and then go on from there."
Our discussion then focused on the beginning and ending of messages.

Over the years, I have heard a gazillion messages begin with the very thing we are instructed to avoid. I presume when I attend church that we will talk about a passage of scripture. The point I want to consider and, have others consider is "why?"
Why are we going to look at a particular point of scripture?
Why should we care about what is going to be said?
Why should I turn to "such and such" passage of Scripture?

In listening to effective speakers, I find that they begin with something that "hooks" the attention of the audience. More than likely, it is a story or a joke or something that will get the listener's attention to want to listen to the rest of the message. If I start without enthusiasm or, without a "hook," it is hard to get the audience back to a point of caring about what the rest of the message will say.


As much as beginnings can leave much to be desired, endings can leave me wondering why we ever began. I find that many speakers don't quite know how they will end so the picture I use is: "they have the plane circling the runway but they don't know how to land."
Consequently, I will listen to a speaker going well past the comfort zone of my mental capacities either saying the same things already said or, simply reaching for something that will make ending possible. I cannot begin to recount the numbers of times a speaker has reached a great ending point but....they keep going on...and on....and on.

I heard a joke years ago about a teenager bringing a friend to church and it was the friend's first time ever in a church service. The pastor began his message by taking his watch off and putting it on the pulpit. When asked what that meant, the church youth said, "not a thing."

Too often it seems that time does not mean a thing to a speaker. However, when a point has been made and all has been said, it is VITAL to know how to end lest the message go on...and on...and on ad infinitum or, better, ad nauseam.

So, I am done now. I think. Hmm...maybe I could talk more about how to end or why to end or............okay....I am done.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

"Thirty minutes cannot contain the whole counsel of God"

A favorite story of mine is one I heard decades ago. A young pastor had come to his first church during the winter in North Dakota. As it happens, a blizzard hit and only one person showed up to the service. Frustrated, the pastor was going to cancel the service and let the man go home. To his surprise, the man said: "if I had only one cow show up for feeding, I sure would feed it."

Inspired by this statement, the pastor determined to make this the best service ever.
They sang all the songs.
They did all the announcements.
They took up an offering.
They had an altar call.
The pastor preached even longer than he normally might since he was so fired up!

After the service was over, he asked the man what he thought. Pausing only for a moment, the man said:
"Well, if I had only one cow show up for feeding, I wouldn't give him enough food for the whole herd!"

It is hard, if not impossible, for a pastor to cut down what he will say during a message. In fact, the old adage for ministers was that the hardest part of preparing a sermon is not what was put in but what was left out.

I have been to many services where the pastor "flew the plane well" but just didn't know how to land it. In 30 minutes [or more..........and more.........and more] a sermon could cover everything from the major views on the return of Christ to the best Bible to use to the latest fiction book "not to read" to tithing to views on the Nazirite vow to.................seemingly never ending.

It is almost as if the fear is that if something is discussed but not something else then people may think that all that is ever discussed at this church is that which was discussed first without then also covering the next thing that was discussed. Make sense????

My first college course dealt with communication. The logic went something like this:

"If talking about subject A, I cannot at the same time talk about subject B."

Meaning--if I give a message on giving, I can't also give a whole message on evangelism [or.....hmm....okay.....we can maybe squeeze that in..............].

What can happen is that so many topics are covered in one message that nothing is really covered and people lose interest long before the message has crash dived.

The fear can be that if I do a "stewarship Sunday" it is possible that people may think all we ever discuss is money.
If we do a message on the plan of salvation, people may think that is all we ever cover.
Etc., etc., etc.

I cannot cover it all in 30 minutes--it is impossible to do. Hopefully, what I DO cover will be well done and cause people to come back next week [or, get tapes or whatever if visiting] to hear what will be said on another topic.

I am trying not to complain but this is simply "my view from the pew."

Friday, September 5, 2008

Preaching "what we are"

At a conference years ago, the speaker talked about a pastor from a certain denomination who had the following outline:

1. Adam before the fall
2. Adam after the fall
3. A word about baptism

I will let you guess as to what denomination this pastor represented.

I have had the privilege of visiting many churches and, being a pastor myself. What I have found is that pastors "preach what they are." By that, I mean that my denominational slants tend to come through no matter where I teach from the Bible.

My denomination emphasizes the inerrancy of Scripture and applying the Bible to life. It is HARD not to end every message with the exhortation: "read your Bible more and apply it to your life."

My daughter attended a Christian liberal arts school in the Wesleyan tradition. Great school with the constant message: "be holy, seek perfection, don't lose what you have."

We now attend a Baptist church while awaiting our next assignment. I enjoy our church and I enjoy our pastor but it is HARD [if not impossible] for every message to NOT center around salvation of the lost.

Pentecostal/charismatic--Holy Spirit

Prosperity churches--well............prosperity and getting rich

Presbyterian--God's sovereignty [and I have found a subtle and not so subtle message of what I call "worm theology" whereby God's grace gets vacuumed up by total depravity].

I thought about each denomination looking at a passage of Scripture and preaching "what they are." The story of the Good Samaritan came to mind.

Baptist--the one who was in need needed someone to save him--are you saved?
Methodist--be holy enough to see a need and meet it--are you holy?
Presbyterian--look at God's sovereignty in protecting the one in need--are you trusting God [even though you are but a worm?].
Charismatic--allow the Holy Spirit to work in your life to meet needs--are you being guided by the Holy Spirit
Evangelical Free--look at how the Samaritan read the Bible and applied it to this need--are you reading your Bible and doing the same thing..............

We tend to "preach what we are." It is the tendency of pastors to do this and it is the make-up of people to gravitate toward this. I am not trying to suggest that this is necessarily wrong. I am merely pointing out what I have seen in.....

"my view from the pew."