Friday, January 28, 2011

Saving the Church

Earlier this week I had lunch with a 69-year-old elder of our church who is part of a small group that’s been studying Brian McLaren’s, A New Kind of Christianity.   It was so much fun to listen as he talked about his passion for belonging to an “emergent” (I know that word is way over used) church.  Our lunch prompted me to go back and reread parts of McLaren’s book.  As mainline churches find themselves in seasons of transition I find his observations encouraging.  In one section McLaren writes:

…local churches and denominations, we must acknowledge, play a vital role in the lives of millions of people around the world – very literally, churches save lives.

Simple churches save people from complexity, and complex churches save people from simplicity.  Political churches save people from an overly personal religiosity, and personal churches save people from overly politicized religiosity.  Exciting churches save people from boredom, and quiet churches save people from hoopla and hype.

The folks who are successfully saved from something by a certain type of church or denomination generally stay in it, along with some others who get stuck there by birth or marriage or inertia or duty.  (As a pastor, I always felt sorry for these poor people and wished for their sake – and sometimes mine – they could go elsewhere.)  The folks who don’t find any particularly helpful kind of salvation from a church or denomination eventually leave, sometimes stomping out mad, but more often just drifting away bored.  Sometimes they find a church that saves them from whatever their previous churches afflicted them with or disappointed them over, but increasingly they just drop out entirely, often swelling the hospitable ranks of the “spiritual but not religious.”  Younger generations especially have been choosing the latter option lately; they just can’t figure out what they’re being saved from, or for, enough to stay.  When enough church leaders wake up and smell the Ben-Gay, when they realize that their faith communities are shrinking and wrinkling and stiffening, they start to ask the church questions very urgently:  What are we going to do about the church?  Behind their question is the very real fear that their beloved congregation or denomination could soon find itself on the red side of a spreadsheet and they could find themselves seeking to save the beloved church that has saved them.

A few pages later McLaren offers a great and simple understanding of why the church exists:

…simple to understand but also embarrassingly challenging to do:  the church exists to form Christlike people, people of Christlike love.  It exists to save them from the great danger of wasting their lives, becoming something less than and other than they were intended to be, gaining the world but losing their souls.

No one wants to waste their life or become less than what they were intended to be. I’m 48 (49 in August) and lots of my friends are hitting 50 this year. I am finding myself increasingly looking toward the next decade and asking:  How can I best be a part of forming Christlike people of Christlike love?  I’m convinced the answer lies in letting go of our desire to “save the church” and instead focus on following Jesus.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Preaching With Passion

Last week I (along with a few others from Grace)  "sat at the feet" of Lloyd Ogilvie as he shared from his experiences (most notably as Pastor or Hollywood Presbyterian Church and Chaplain of the US Senate) on what it means to preach with passionMark Labberton (Fuller Seminary) also shared his heart and wisdom.

There have been some great reminders of the lessons I've learned from the wisdom and friendship of voices that have shaped and sharpened my preaching over the year (especially Walt Gerber, Scott Dudley, John Ortberg and Doug Lawrence). I loved the quote from Richard Baxter shared the first day of the seminar:

I preach as a dying man

To dying men and women

As though never to preach again

As I preach each week here's what I'm constantly trying to remember. 

I can only share what's in me.  Scott loved to quote Robert Frost: "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.". When I preach out of my head or out of theory I share information.  When I preach from my heart and life experiences I share convictions.  Walt liked to encourage young preachers not to tell people what we know (most aren't that interested) but instead share with them what we are learning as we walk with Jesus.  Lloyd has hammered that point home over and over again these past few days - we can't proclaim grace we've never experienced for ourselves. 

I am preparing messages for the real people with real problems and questions. I've been called to "go and tell the full message of new life" (Acts 5: 20) in a specific context.  To help me remember this I'm spending more time preparing messages in coffee shops than behind the closed door of my study.  There's time I need to spend where I have easy access to my library, but when I spend all my time in my study I am tempted to write academic papers.  By simply being in the real world as I write, I keep my messages more grounded in the real lives of people.  Some homiletic classes are even doing this as an exercise for students - sending them out into the city to prepare their message. 

Another great reminder has been to be in at least one intentional weekly discipleship relationship with a new believer or unbeliever.  I began such a relationship last fall and it has dramatically changed my message preparation.  It challenges my assumptions about what people know (and don't know) it reminds me of the questions people are asking and most of all inspires me by providing me a "front row seat" as Jesus transforms a life into a new creation. 

The more I pray the better I preach.   I am grateful that over the last couple of years God has blessed me with a deeper prayer life - a genuine hunger for prayer and for God's word.  The time I spend satisfying that hunger has a direct impact on my preaching.  I’ve also been blessed by some faithful “prayer warriors” who have been praying specifically for my preaching.  I can feel the difference it is making.

And I’ve found that the more I pray the more I am immune to criticism and attempting to please the congregation.  Time spent with God means that I am more and more only seeking His approval.

I need to remove any barriers between the congregation and me.  Small group gurus for years have told us not to sit around tables when we meet together.  Management gurus tell us not to sit behind desks.  The well accepted principle is that tables and desks separate us a create barriers for connection.  A little over a year ago I got rid of the lectern (at our contemporary service) and stepped out (permanently) from the pulpit (at our traditional).  I learned from the "architectural wisdom" of John and had a thrust built out from the chancel so that I could be lower and closer to the congregation.

Losing the lectern and pulpit meant that I had to let go what I have (finally) come to realize has been the greatest barrier between me and the congregation - my notes.  For 16 years I argued that preaching with notes was not only acceptable but also preferable - notes, even manuscripts, keep us on track and prevent rambling.  I learned not to rely on my notes and taught myself to maintain good eye contact instead of reading.

Two event changed my thinking.  I read Andy Stanley's "Communicating for a Change" and couldn't get his observation out of my head that "if after working on the message all week I couldn't remember it - what makes me think my hearers can.  Secondly a trusted elder (thanks Bob) challenged me (in a way that only Bob can) to try.  So on Christmas Eve 2009 I left my manuscript behind and I haven't used one since.  Here's what I've learned:  I have a much greater capacity for memorization that I realized (and it gets easier with repetition).  
It doesn't matter if I get something out of place or leave out something entirely.  No one knows but me and if I forget it, it likely wasn't that important anyway.

Bottom line, the more barriers I remove the more I feel a connection with the congregation.  Right now I am asking myself what other barriers might I need to remove.

Practice makes perfect.  When I decided to put down my notes I made a commitment to spend more time practicing delivering the message.  It begins on Monday, which I set aside for writing.  On Thursday afternoons I do a message “run-through” with our worship leaders (Ben, Dave and Brian).  Doug L. taught me years ago that gifted worship leaders have great insights into message delivery and today the Grace worship leaders always have good suggestions.  I try to go to bed early on Saturday night and the last things I do before bed are to 1) read the message one more time (so I can think it through as I am falling asleep) and 2) have Kim pray over me.  There is nothing more powerful than having your spouse pray over you and your message.  On Sunday mornings I get in early enough to spend at least an hour in the chapel going over the sermon – aloud – again and again and again.  By the time I step up to preach at the first sermon the message is inside me.

That's some of what I learned and was reminded of at last week's seminar.  Most of all I was reminded that I love to preach!  When 2011 began I experienced a renewed passion for preaching.  It is both a joy and burden and I am more aware than ever how much I can still grow as a preacher.  What a gift and a responsibility to Sunday after Sunday get to:

Preach as a dying man

To dying men and women

As though never to preach again