One of the reasons I’m drawn to NEXT Church is an awareness that we need to be both honest and creative about the cultural shifts affecting all of us, including the church. The same-old same-old is not going to work in sharing good news with a world that needs it. Everything is on the table: staffing models, leadership, building or no building, schedules and activities. And I think we need to try everything as we live toward a renewed mission in our time and place.
I met Jim Somerville, a pastor in Richmond, at the Festival of Homiletics this spring, and here’s his contribution to this spirit of experimentation: A Sermon for Every Sunday. There are tons of small churches out there who are doing great ministry, but who lack the resources to call a pastor. Jim has brought together preachers from around the country to record sermons for each Sunday of the year. These sermons can be purchased for a nominal fee and then played on a screen or a TV set, in worship or at other church gatherings.
Good preachers know that good sermons are contextual—they speak to a particular people in a particular time. Jim understands this as well, and envisions these sermons as the beginning of proclamation, not the entirety of it. So he encourages congregations to watch the sermon and then talk about it how it connects to their lives and ministries, perhaps guided by an elder or other church leader. Why not?
Churchy folk, I invite you to spread the word to colleagues who might be interested in it. And I look forward to seeing how A Sermon for Every Sunday takes hold as a resource, especially in smaller churches!
Two years ago my daughters decided they wanted to do something to help people in our community who are homeless. We set up a fundraiser whereby people donated to Homestretch, a wonderful organization here in Fairfax County, and in exchange folks received various thank you gifts from Caroline and Margaret. We raised close to $1,000 for Homestretch, thanks to the girls’ hard work and your generosity. In fact, I met with staff of Homestretch recently, and they specifically remembered the little girls who gave their time and talent to help people who are transitioning from homelessness to a more stable life.
After a hiatus from this project last year, the girls want to do it again. Caroline and Margaret will be putting together another collection of holiday music, but rather than CDs we’re going completely digital this year. Everyone who gives (regardless of amount) will receive a link for downloading the songs to iTunes or other mp3 system. We’ve got a lot more instruments in the mix this year—voice and piano, but also cello, guitar, recorder, maybe even ukelele. Caroline has also gotten a little more experience with GarageBand, so who knows what they’ll come up with!
Here’s how it works:
1. Make a donation of any amount to one of the organizations listed below.
3. Once the album is finished, we will email you the link for download. We hope to complete it by December 22, so you’ll have time to put it in your holiday rotation! If you give $50 or more, we will also send the link to a friend of your choosing as a gift from you, dressed up in a nice festive email describing your gift.
Love Wins Ministries — Love Wins is actually based in Raleigh, but I’ve gotten to know the pastor and director, Hugh Hollowell, via social media. Love Wins operates on grace and a shoestring, and does amazing work both with advocacy and as a ministry of presence. The girls wanted to add Love Wins after I told them about David, Ashley, and Baby Liberty. Liberty is due to be born very soon after Ashley’s water broke at 30 weeks. They have a long list of needs—please give what you can to Love Wins or to help this struggling family.
Thank you in advance for your generosity and for helping Caroline and Margaret make a difference.
The movie Left Behind came and went last month. Did you miss it? Oh no! Well come January, you’ll be able to catch it on DVD, which may be entertaining just to see what kind of movie garners a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 2%. Ouch.
For anyone unaware of the mega-bestselling books, the Left Behind series is a fanciful account of the rapture, which is a strain of end-times theology based on a misreading of I Thessalonians. The idea is that the righteous people will be carried up to heaven so that God can come down and open a can of whupa** on the unbelievers.
(I have a pastor friend with a parishioner who believed in the rapture… he was always tempted to go to her house with a set of clothes, lay them out flat on her porch, ring the doorbell and run. Thus proving that if the rapture were a real thing, he’d be one of the heathens left behind, eh? Along with yours truly, since I crack up every time I picture it.)
Rapture theology is not a big part of my tradition. I know Presbyterians who’ve read the Left Behind books, but generally they read them as entertaining fiction, not as sound biblical interpretation. Because they aren’t.
Still, I am tempted to pray for the rapture… at least, a rapture of a sort.
In my work with NEXT Church, and having been a colleague to many folks in ministry these 11 years, and as a pastor of a small church, I know a huge number of congregations that are struggling with aging facilities they can no longer afford. Rather than being tools for ministry, these buildings are money and energy pits.
As for Tiny Church, we’re blessed with a functional building that’s the right size for us, an absence of debt, and an endowment we can use when repairs or capital improvements are needed. And still, we have been locked in conversations for a long time about what to do with our aging kitchen and aged building. I had my fifth anniversary at Tiny last month, and these conversations predate me. We are an engaged congregation with many strong leaders, but we lack the capacity to do progressive, forward-thinking ministry AND make these upgrades. It’s a burden—and it’s a burden thousands of congregations share.
So, I daydream. I daydream that all the church buildings would be raptured, leaving behind the communities of faith who used to inhabit them, who would then be compelled to ask themselves, “Who are we without these buildings? What do we now have the capacity to do that we didn’t before?”
A colleague serving a small congregation, burdened by a large unwieldy building, said a number of years ago, “Sometimes I pray that the building would burn down.” She was only half kidding. I know churches that have burned and rebuilt. One hopes and assumes that these new buildings are right-sized for the resources of the congregation, and better reflect the ministry as it is now. But building rapture would be better. Because there’s no building-rapture insurance that I’m aware of. There would be no payout from GuideOne or State Farm. There would be no new organ to replace the old one, no brand-spanking new facility that is a great tool for ministry now but has a decent chance of being a millstone for the congregation of 50 years from now.
There would be a tremendous period of grief, of course. Buildings are sacred spaces and containers for memory. And there would be congregations who peter out, maybe because they lack the vision for a church without a building, or because they realize that the building was the only thing that united them.
But some churches would find ways to move forward. They would rent spaces and meet in homes, schools and businesses. They would discover gifts and capacities they never knew they had.
A canon of mythology has grown up around pursuing work we love, including the ubiquitous charge to “find your passion” and the well-meaning question that was posed to me almost daily in college: “what is God calling you to do with your life?” That mythology puts a ton of unnecessary pressure on people to pick the right work or else miss their God-given calling. And it obscures both the gift and the responsibility we have to work with our lives.
…We are called and suited to particular kinds of work, I believe, and God cares a great deal about how we steward the talents we’ve been given. But we should not expect passion to persist at all times in our work, and we certainly should not conclude that when energy fades so has our calling.
I couldn’t agree more, and his words reminded me of a treasured bit of wisdom from Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame and written for Forbes back in 2008. His piece is called It’s a Dirty Job, and I Love It! and should be read in its entirety, and not just because he talks about castrating a lamb with his teeth. (And you thought budget and finance meetings were unpleasant!)
Here’s the money quote:
In the long history of inspirational pabulum, “follow your passion” has got to be the worst. Even if this drivel were confined to the borders of the cheap plastic frames that typically surround it, I’d condemn the whole sentiment as dangerous, not because it’s cliché, but because so many people believe it. Over and over, people love to talk about the passion that guided them to happiness. When I left high school–confused and unsure of everything–my guidance counselor assured me that it would all work out, if I could just muster the courage to follow my dreams. My Scoutmaster said to trust my gut. And my pastor advised me to listen to my heart. What a crock.
Why do we do this? Why do we tell our kids–and ourselves–that following some form of desire is the key to job satisfaction? If I’ve learned anything from this show, it’s the folly of looking for a job that completely satisfies a “true purpose.” In fact, the happiest people I’ve met over the last few years have not followed their passion at all–they have instead brought it with them.
Now this is a little different than Rocky’s point, which is that you can be called to something even if it doesn’t set your world on fire all the time. But the basic point is similar.
I just finished reading Craig Barnes’s fine book, The Pastor as Minor Poet. I agree with my friend who said it should be required reading for new pastors—so long as they agree to reread it every few years. This is one of those books that begs to be revisited.
Barnes’s book is a welcome counterpoint to the numerous blogs, articles and books out there that trumpet the pastor’s need to be an entrepreneur, fundraiser, change agent, CEO, family systems guru, social media expert, etc. Those skills are important, but Barnes’s book calls pastors “to continually search for the deeper, truer understandings of what they see–both in the text of scripture and in the text of their parishioners’ lives.”
In other words, our attentive study of the scripture and of the human condition isn’t superfluous. It’s our primary vocation… not least because we’re likely the only ones in our parishioners’ lives doing that.
As pastors, our job is to notice and to name. It’s just that simple and just that complicated.
One place where I quibble with Barnes is in the area of sermon illustrations. He seems pretty down on them, for reasons I partly understand. Stories within the sermon are tough to get right. Karl Barth used to talk about preaching with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. I told someone recently that I also feel called to preach with the Bible in one hand and popular culture in the other, but it’s a tricky business. (Part of the reason I enjoy tackling it. Remember, I’d rather be wrong than boring.)
I’ve done sermons about gospel lessons in Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, children’s literature, reality television, and comic book characters. On reflection, some have probably worked better than others. You have to bring people up to speed, and I can remember a few sermons in which I thought “this is requiring too much setup to get to the point.”
What I hoped all these sermons did on some level, though, is to model for people a faithful engagement with the world we live in: to sleuth around for the living Christ at work in (and/or standing against) those works of culture we consume every day.
Anyway, here’s Barnes’s critique:
There are two great dangers that accompany every sermon illustration. The first, and most common, is that the illustration will overpower the gentle revelation of Christ that the preacher is trying to hold before those in the pews. The second is that it will be only ornamentation that distracts the listeners from the pristine beauty of the message. This is not to say that preachers should avoid using illustrations. There are times, especially when preaching out of the epistles of the New Testament, when a good illustration is necessary even for the minor poet. But even then, it is important that the illustration not get in the way of the preacher, the congregation, and the Holy Spirit.
At this point it seems like Barnes isn’t against illustrations, just against bad ones. But he goes on:
The longer I preach, the fewer illustrations I seem to use. Mostly that is because I have learned to trust the incarnational nature of the biblical text. The vast majority of the Bible presents not abstract theology, but theology embodied in sacred stories. These narratives are profoundly compelling, and they don’t benefit from being interrupted with similar contemporary stories.
Did you catch that? Preaching without benefit of illustrations is a matter of trust. Do you agree?
I’ve heard it said (and Barnes intimates) that if people leave the service remembering the story you told more than the story you read from scripture, that you somehow didn’t serve the people well. I don’t think it’s that simple. What is the goal of our preaching? For people to leave with the scripture passage on their lips? One hopes so, and a good sermon can provide some biblical education, but it shouldn’t be the primary aim of our preaching. Rather, our hope in preaching is that the gospel message continues to live in the hearts of the listeners. Why can a well-told story not do this?
I find it peculiar, this idea that the gospel is somehow threatened by our stories, as if the illustration and the scripture are somehow in competition with one another. This is a false dichotomy. A good illustration doesn’t pull attention away from the text, it breaks it open further.
Preachers and listeners: what do you think?
By the way, you can read those Harry Potter sermons (and lots of other stuff) here.
By the way2, thanks to everyone who’s subscribed to my email list. I promise a big juicy update this week. Subscribe here.