Preaching for decisions: know when to land the sermon

I heard a well-prepared, well-delivered sermon that was intended to conclude with an invitation. As the sermon was finished a sweet spirit was evident in the service and I fully expected to see several people respond. The case had been made and the Spirit of the Lord was at work.

But the preacher wouldn’t land the sermon! Instead, we heard one more story followed by yet another application. By the time people were actually given opportunity to respond the moment had faded and the response was meager.

There are two points in the sermon that especially need to be well thought through by the preacher. The first is the first part of the sermon. The other is the closing of the sermon.

I’m not saying that sermons should never include “in flight” direction of the Holy Spirit, even at crucial points (like leading to a call for decisions). However, the preacher needs to be careful to leave the Spirit room to work in the hearts of the listeners and be leery of telling “one more story.”

Contemporary worship in a traditional sanctuary

drums
We visit a lot of churches; frankly, it’s a lot of fun. I find hearing different pastors, enjoying the music of some talented people, and even looking over the décor of the sanctuary to be interesting and sometimes inspiring. It’s the sanctuary set-up that I’m thinking about today.

Most churches (thinking of buildings here) that we visit have been around for a while. When they were built people had a rather specific idea of how a church ought to look so it comes as no surprise that buildings that were constructed at similar times for churches of the same denomination have the same look and feel.

Interesting to me is that, while church sanctuaries have remained the same, the worship services themselves have undergone some major upgrades the last 20 years or so. Most churches we visit have gone to a blended type of worship service. The music has changed and now it’s guitars and drums with the piano relegated to a less central role. Organs have fared even worse; often little used or even removed from service all together.

Probably the only sanctuary change in all this that is common is the addition of a video screen. In some churches the screen sticks out like a sore thumb, maybe even covering the top part of a cross during at least part of the service (not a very good visual in my opinion).

Often, aside from the video addition, everything looks pretty much the same as it did 40-50 years ago.

Frankly, I don’t think that works very well. Dark paneling, oak pews, and heavy furniture on the platform…these speak of another day. They make me want to sing “Oh God our Help in Ages Past” with pipe organ rather than “Good, Good Father” with praise band.

I know that, really, what I expect or “feel” about this doesn’t matter much. After all, I’m going to attend and worship either way.

But what does it say to the people we want to reach? If everything they see around them says, “Grandma’s church” all that contemporary music is going to do is create a disjointed feeling, like, say, mixing perfectly good mashed potatoes with perfectly good ice cream. Either one is okay without the other, but together…they don’t mesh very well.

Also, I know that dealing with this kind of stuff is, for a church leader, a stroll through a mine field. Many of our most faithful folk have only grudgingly gone along with the change in music style. If someone starts messing with their pew things could get rather dicey in a hurry.

I’m no architect or designer so I’m not sure how to best accomplish it, but I’m thinking that an updated, contemporary worship service will work best in an updated, modernized setting. Otherwise, we’re just, to borrow (in a rather out-of-context way) from Jesus, trying to put new wine into old wineskins.

The biggest single change for pastors

preaching

I was just thinking about the biggest single change I’ve seen in my 45 years of ministry.

One big one was the move away from the KJV to the NIV (or some other modern version) being the most commonly used version of the Bible in our services by preachers. That changed sermons from being, to a large part, translating Shakespearean language to modern English for our listeners to being more focused on the meaning of the text itself.

Another big change was the addition of video to preaching. I know some pastors have yet to move toward it, but the vast majority of our churches have video up at least for scriptures, but often preaching is supplemented by professionally produced videos and clips from popular culture.

A more subtle change is that our listeners now consume a wide variety of teaching ranging from TV and radio preachers to reading books or listening to podcasts from a variety of theological perspectives. This is a major change from the day when the local pastor was the primary source of teaching to those in the congregation. I’ve heard fine lay people repeat stuff that it is clearly incompatible with our doctrines. They’d heard it somewhere, and just accepted it because the speaker is a well known, capable teacher.

I think, though, that the biggest change is the move away from Sunday night services.

As I’ve just been saying, the pastor’s voice is diminished in the lives of church attenders already. So, while people are consuming a variety of religious teaching through the week, most pastors only address their congregations on Sunday mornings during the sermon. That limits the pastor’s influence over the congregation.

I’m not saying, though, that this change is necessarily a bad thing. It was late in my active ministry that our church yielded to the reality that most people simply didn’t want to attend a Sunday night service. And it was only with that change in the church schedule that I had a taste of Sunday being a Christian Sabbath. For many years of my ministry I came to Sunday night exhausted. The concept that the pastor should take a different day as a day of rest never really worked for me. My weekly “day off” was filled with the kinds of things that most everyone does on their days off and not especially restful. I came to greatly appreciate Sunday afternoons as a time to unwind without needing to “reload” for the Sunday evening service.

Beyond that, being able to focus on Sunday morning only made me, I think, a better preacher. All my preparation time was toward one sermon. For non-preachers this may not sound like much but I think most preachers who read this will agree that focusing on one sermon a week makes a huge difference in preaching.

Of all the changes I’ve seen, I think the elimination of Sunday night church is the biggest.

What do you think?

Advise to young pastors: Baptism

Coming from a low church background I had very little pastoral training for conducting baptisms.  Also, in spite of my denomination’s acceptance of infant baptism, it was never practiced in the portions of the country where I grew up or ministered – everywhere I served people wanted to get wet all over and that’s what happened.  Because of that, I’ll focus in on baptism services for youth and adults – and, for the sake of this article, I’m more thinking of in-church baptisms rather than I am those that take place at a lake or river (although most of my suggestions work either way).

  • Be sure people are prepared for baptism.  Pastor, that’s your job.  Don’t leave it to the youth pastor or Sunday School teacher or a parent.  Be ready to sit down with a candidate and, in an age appropriate way, work through what it means to be a Christian and why we baptize.  Of course, that means you have to understand it.  In our tradition we baptize as a means of grace.  That means, to us, it’s more than an outward witness.  It’s a sacrament – can you explain what that means to a 12 year old?  That’s exactly what you have to do if you are going to officiate at their baptism.
  • Write your own version of the baptism ritual.  I don’t mean that you have the freedom to make it say something it doesn’t already say, but if your candidates’ (and your congregations’) eyes glaze over as you read the ritual you are just saying meaningless words.  Say it in such a way that they will understand what you are saying to them.
  • Have the candidates write out (or video) their testimony and have it read by a spiritual mentor just prior to their baptism.
  • Have everyone say the Apostle’s Creed together.  Don’t read the creed to the candidates – have them and the congregation say it and affirm it together.  After all, you are, by baptizing the candidates, uniting them with the congregation at a whole new level.  By the way, you and your congregation ought to be familiar with the Creed…maybe not memorized, but used to saying it.  This is who we are and what we believe.  Work it into Communion services or just include it in a service once a month.
  • If you are using some kind of hybrid baptistery where people sit down, etc.  then practice!  Let them get into the baptistery when it is dry and see what you expect of them (and yourself).  This is a big deal!  We rehearse weddings, why shouldn’t we rehearse baptisms?
  • Be prepared to help people in and out of the baptistery – they are nervous and distracted, and then wet!  Have someone ready to lend them a hand and hand them a towel.
  • Depending on how your baptistery is set up, invite family and guests to come to the platform to serve as witnesses (and take photos).  Beyond that, if you can, have the children and teens of the congregation to come up front to see it all.
  • Have everyone ready to cheer after each one – this is a big deal and a time of celebration.  Don’t let people just sit there watching the candidates get wet.
  • Once in a while, maybe once a year, prior to the baptismal service, preach on baptism.  Tell the congregation why it is a means of grace – have some of the senior saints ready to share the story of their baptism.  Then, with everyone freshly reminded of how wonderful it is, bring the candidates up!  Wow – what a great time you will have!
  • Once you are finished with the baptisms, and depending on your setup, take a bowl of the water from the baptismal and walk through the congregation inviting people to touch the water and “remember your baptism.”  If your sanctuary is set up to allow it, you might even have all who will to come forward and touch the water in the baptismal.
  • Even as you conclude the service, announce that you are ready to meet with others who would like to prepare for baptism.  You might just end up keeping the water for use next Sunday!

These are my thoughts…what are yours?

Reflections on the second anniversary of my retirement

Wow, retirement anniversary number two.  It was the first Sunday of May, 2013 that we concluded our pastoral ministry and entered into retirement.  In our case, we retired to travel and the very next day we drove off with our RV, starting the next primary chapter of our lives.

This last year has been terrific.  We traveled from Houston to the northwestern corner of the continental United States and then journeyed at a leisurely pace south along the western coast where we enjoyed amazing scenery and cool Pacific Ocean temperatures.  We visited numerous national parks and, in general, had a blast.

Our winter and early spring has been spent doing a variation of our fulltime RVing lifestyle.  We’ve volunteered at the Texas San Jacinto Battleground/Battleship Texas State Historic Park.  In exchange for donating 100 hours of our time each month we’ve enjoyed “free parking.”  That “trade” has saved us some serious, and needed, cash! We’ve thoroughly enjoyed this experience which allowed us to do some very interesting things while being close to family and friends.  While we’re more than ready to begin our travels again we enjoyed the volunteering experience enough that we’ve already signed up to do it again next year.

I did a few more clergy-like things than I did our first year but not a lot.  I filled for our pastor when he was away, filled in for our Sunday School teacher (who happens to be my son) when he was away, did a baby dedication, and finalized my series of books of devotionals.  Aside from that I’ve happily sat in the pew, appreciating the ministry of others.

All in all, we’ve spent over 4 months in the Houston area during this stay.  That means we suspended our “church hopping” ways and settled into a more typical church attendance routine.  While visiting many different churches during our travels is enjoyable we’ve missed the sense of community associated with being a part of a congregation.  This being our second winter as part of our home church helped us feel more a part of things.  It’s interesting to me how things we at first felt were somehow different become, in just a few weeks, just “the way it is done here.”  One thing that become increasingly clear is that no church can be evaluated in just a week or two.  Churches have personalities and that personality isn’t apparent until one is part of the congregation (and involved beyond an hour on Sunday mornings) for a while.  Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy visiting churches, but I know that being a regular, contributing part of a church family is superior.

So, I’d say retirement is going quite well, thank you!  We’re well aware that we are blessed to live this life and we don’t take it for granted.

 

 

Thinking about Good Friday

old-rugged-cross1I fear that too many people think the primary focus of Good Friday is supposed to be about how much Jesus suffered on the cross – and, we certainly do need to remember that. But really, the primary focus should be this: Jesus loved me that much. It’s that realization that should stun us, humble us, and cause us to bow in complete surrender to him.

On the subject of forgiveness

My son, Scott, talking about forgiveness…

Contemporary Worship: things that bug me

No, I’m not going to complain about the style of music or being asked to stand through the song -er- worship service. Here are three contemporary worship services practices that I am seeing that bug me.

  1. Volume of instruments in the praise band. This may surprise you, but I’m not talking about the music being too loud. We seldom come away from a service in a church of our flavor (Church of the Nazarene) thinking the music is too loud. What I do hear fairly often, though, is unbalanced volume from the various instruments in the band. Often, even when the stage has several instruments, the only two I can hear clearly are the strumming of the worship leader on the guitar and the drummer. If you closed your eyes you would think that was all there was: no keyboard, no bass, no second guitar. Of course there are variations to that. Sometimes the music guy plays keyboard and it’s the keyboard you hear. Really, if you are going to recruit instrumentalists to your praise band and have them come to rehearsal it’s reasonable that your music and sound people work together to balance the sound. Obviously, there are exemptions – maybe you have a not-so-talented musician that you want to encourage by having them sit in. Aside from that, though, an effort needs to be made to equalize the sound.
  2. Self-serve communion. It is becoming more common to put the communion elements out and announce to the congregation that during the next song they can come and receive communion if they want. I can’t tell you what poor symbolism I think this is. Communion isn’t a self-serve event. It isn’t an “if you want it” kind of ordinance. Just continuing with the music portion of the service as though communion is just a side line misses the mark. I love communion and I think it has enough spiritual “weight” to hold it’s own in a service. I don’t mind the ritual being updated in some reasonable ways, but I want the pastor to lend his/her authority to the serving of the sacrament.  It bugs me to hear the pastor taking time to do announcements as though that is really important stuff but leaving the serving of the Lord’s Supper on automatic as though it’s just an optional part of that Sunday’s worship service.
  3. Preaching from floor level rather than the platform. I understand the desire of pastors to be informal and approachable during the sermon. I understand that in a contemporary worship service the speaker doesn’t want to appear preachy. Apparently, a lot of pastors have decided that, not only do they not want a pulpit, but they want to be down front rather than on the stage looking down on people. But let me tell you what happens out in the seats: some of us spend the whole sermon trying to look around the people in front of us. After awhile I gain a whole new appreciation for Zacchaeus of New Testament fame who climbed a tree so he could get a glimpse of Jesus. If the speaker would just stand on the platform we could all see him or her. Some pastors think they are enhancing their communication effort by staying off the platform, but I think they are shooting themselves in the foot by creating an absolutely unnecessary distraction.

Any time I see young adults in the church who are really into worship it blesses my heart and I’m happily convinced that a lot of contemporary churches are doing a lot of things right.  Still, I have to confess that these things bug me.

How about you?

Reflections on the 1st Anniversary of my Retirement

Time flies. It was one year ago this Sunday that I preached my final sermon as a pastor and said farewell to our wonderful congregation. We turned the page to a new chapter in our lives.

While I doubt that I will ever quit being a pastor at heart, I’ve begun to learn to go to church and sit in a pew. I’ve been learning what it means to go to church and have no responsibility other than to worship. I’d almost forgotten what that was like. For me church attendance was filled with responsibilities. I gave my all on Sundays and came home weary and, quite often satisfied. These days I come home less weary and less satisfied. Going to church no longer has “work” associated with it but it doesn’t carry with it the satisfaction only a pastor enjoys after an especially blessed Sunday morning.

Of course, Jackie and I didn’t retire in a normal way. The day after my last Sunday we headed out on a great adventure, traveling the country in our RV. It’s been a great year and we hope it has been the first of what will be many.

During the past year I stopped carrying an ink pen in my pocket. That meant I could shop for shirts without pockets for the first time in years. It took several months, but I finally stopped wearing a watch. I have a sun tan instead of a white band around my wrist! During the year Jackie and my mornings have morphed into a leisurely time punctuated by a long coffee break about 10:00 each day. Then, many evenings have been spent sitting outside watching the sky; counting the satellites that glide overhead. We’ve even seen a good number of shooting stars. We’re enjoying each other’s company in ways that were almost forgotten.

We aren’t quite there yet but we’re rediscovering something we haven’t experienced since childhood: the joy of doing nothing. Don’t get me wrong: we do a lot. We’ve gone sightseeing, taken hikes, and visited museums and National Parks. However, mixed in now, are days of reading or just fooling with the computer. There are times to just sit and watch the world go by; or blow an evening watching TV. Over the winter, when it was unusually old outside, we watched the entire Star Wars series, from beginning to end, every night for six nights in a row. No meetings to attend, no need to bundle up and go out and fight the weather or the traffic – just time to do what we wanted to do, which was, at that particular moment: nothing.

We’ve missed having family close by. Most people retire and spend more time with loved ones. We, in our own crazy way, retired and immediately traveled far from them. That absent time, though, was somewhat balanced out by the months when we were close by and available to them as never before.

So, here I am, one year into retirement. When anyone asks me how I’m enjoying retirement I generally respond with the quip that had I known it was this much fun, I would have done it 30 years ago. There’s no small amount of truth to it.

After Communion

thimblesIn my early ministry I remember seeing a grandmother allowing her grandkids to gather around the communion ware and drink all the left over grape juice from the tiny cups.  I think that was the first time I ever thought about the remnants of the communion sacrament.  At the time, I hadn’t thought much about it but there was something about that approach that was disturbing to me.

Coming from a non-liturgical background as I had I’d given little thought to what to do with left over bread and wine (grape juice for us) after the service.  Our Roman Catholic friends, meanwhile, have it down to a fine art but, then, they believe in transubstantiation too – that is that the elements become the actual body and blood of our Lord.  After the mass they are left with consecrated elements that must be handled with utmost reverence.  For Protestants and especially for non-liturgical groups the status of left over elements is something less.   As we celebrate the sacrament concerning the bread and wine we pray: “Make them by the power of your Spirit to be for us the body and blood of Christ.”  Having just prayed that prayer a short time earlier, just tossing these things into the trash or down the drain is something akin to handling the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy way.  So what to do?

Fortunately, there are godly people who have thought about this.  After some reading I directed those in our church who prepare the sacrament to this approach; maybe it will help you too.

If we are using the little squares of unleavened bread we return it to the container and put it back in the freezer to be used again.  If we are using baked bread, the portion left over from the actual communion is taken outside to a little used area (like a flower garden) and left for the birds, etc. to consume.  The person taking it out offers a short prayer, thanking the Lord for his sacrifice for us.

Grape juice that has been offered is similarly returned to the earth.  That which was never offered in the service can be drunk as a beverage.

While we don’t accept the concept of transubstantiation we do want to be aware that these elements (that we said are symbols of our Lord’s broken body and shed blood) should be handled in a respectful, reverent way.  You might say that this is a fitting conclusion to a sacrament that emphasizes how common place things can take on uncommon meaning.