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."

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Worship, corporate--part 1: singing

I like to sing. Really, I do. I make fun of my voice and my ability but I am not as bad as I make myself out to be. I will sing in my office and in my car and, occasionally, in the shower but the songs are only about one verse now since Atlanta is in a drought and showers are shorter.

One of my favorite places to sing is with a group of people during times of corporate worship.
One of my least favorite places to sing is with a group of people during times of corporate worship.

Let me explain......

Corporate singing in church is a direct fulfillment of Jesus' high priestly prayer in John 17. Really! Look at how He prays--His main desire is that His followers would be united. At NO OTHER TIME during a worship service is the congregation doing the same thing at the same time.

Sermons? You have got to be kidding me. People's minds run the gamut from: "why is the pastor wearing that?" to, "I hope we get out on time today," to, "I hope my team wins today," or, "I can't believe my team played so poorly yesterday," to...............................well, you get the point.

Now that I am sitting in the pew, I can verify this from firsthand experience. My pastor does a good job with what he shares but my mind wanders a million times a minute.

Offering? No way. Scripture readings? Not happening. Even responsive readings have the frustration of knowing when to pause and when not to pause whether there is a comma or not.

When a congregation of people is singing the same song at the same time [a bit awkward to sing a different song, I guess] there is a unity unlike any other time within a church.

Part of my contention for why music is such an issue in churches today is because the enemy does not like either the notion that we are united while we are giving praise to our heavenly Father.

THUS--the least favorite side of corporate worship for me.

I don't necessarily mind "7/11" songs [7 words sung over and over 11 times] as long as they aren't sung 711 times. I have been in services where the intent seemed to be wearing out the congregation with one song so they wouldn't have the energy to complain about anything else.

My concerns with corporate worship rest mostly on those who lead and a bit with those who follow. I have been to HUGE conferences with thousands of people and great worship teams that choose songs to sing that may be popular in Kalamazoo or Kissimmee or Kankakee but are unknown to the rest of Evangelical Christianity. There are lists of the most popular songs sung throughout the nation--why lead with songs that nobody knows???

Another concern is with CORPORATE WORSHIP LEADERS who think they are soloists. If someone is leading the congregation then they should LEAD the congregation in a way that is consistent and "doable." When a worship leader sings a verse straight through one time but then pauses on a word the next time--the congregation keeps singing, feeling slightly embarrassed along the way. If done consistently, the congregation stops singing or, loses the fervor it might have had to sing altogether.

My concerns with the congregation are two-fold [really, I have more but I will limit myself to two]:
Why do people talk during times of corporate worship? Talk about distracting. Philippians 2:14 talks about doing all things without grumbling or complaining but I find myself doing a bit of grumbling and complaining while singing praises to the Lord and hearing the buzz of a conversation behind me.
Why do people attend churches with a style of corporate worship they don't like and then stay but grumble and complain about the music? The question pretty much summarizes the frustration.

Corporate worship. One of those: best of times and worst of times.
One of those: good news and bad news things.
One of those: expect the worst but hope for the best times.
One of those: can't live with it and can't shoot the worship leader..........

Honestly, though--with the frustrations experienced, there is nothing better than voices raised together in praise and harmony and singing to the Lord.