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!
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.
I’m preaching for a bunch of preachers in two weeks, at an event called the Festival of Homiletics, or as many of us affectionately call it: Homies.
In preparation, I’ve been thinking a lot about the text below from Matthew. I’d love to know what you hear in it, especially as it speaks to our current context. Jesus’ words about “what comes out of the mouth” speak to me about cheap talk, the proliferation of words in a world of cable news and Twitter, and yes, the rise of snarkiness.
And then what’s going on with Jesus’ reaction to the Canaanite woman in the second section? It’s not every day you hear a word from the Lord that makes you want to say “Ooh, burn!” (Yes I’m a child of the 80s.)
What is up with Jesus’ reaction? How do you hear this story?
I’m especially interested in thoughts from you non-churchy types.
10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, ‘Listen and understand: 11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.’ 12Then the disciples approached and said to him, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees took offence when they heard what you said?’ 13He answered, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind.* And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.’ 15But Peter said to him, ‘Explain this parable to us.’ 16Then he said, ‘Are you also still without understanding?17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.’
21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ 24He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ 26He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 27She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ 28Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.
I’m meeting this week with The Well, my yearly cohort group. I like to say that I laugh more during this week of “preacher camp” than I do any other week of the year. This year has been heavier than normal, with several concerns for friends, loved ones and ourselves. This has made the mirth all the more necessary and sweet.
Many colleagues have wished for their own preacher camp. This prompted me to write “Design Your Own Preacher Camp,” which has become one of my most popular posts. I stand behind those instructions, although they’re a few years old and some things have changed.
There are many different kinds of clergy groups out there. Some get together mainly to play, meeting in a beach house, say. That’s great, and in a demanding job like ministry, it’s not frivolous to do so. As for us, we’ve been called the “nerdy group,” and we wear the badge proudly. We play a lot, but we also each bring two papers about the upcoming year’s scripture texts that we share with one another and discuss. For me, it’s easier to justify an entire week away from family if I can come back with something that is going to make my job tangibly easier. And this year I’m returning with a head start on 30 weeks’ worth of preaching.
I know groups that have formed using our approach that are thriving. I know others that started out but didn’t “take.” I wish I knew everything that makes for success in a group like this—I really want such groups to propagate, as does everyone in The Well. We think it’s vital for the health of our congregations. So I asked our group for insight into why ours has worked for seven years now, and here are some things they cited.
Deep prior relationships. As it happened, we started out with two circles of friends that were connected to one another through a couple of key relationships. What that means is that nobody in our group knew everyone. But everyone had a strong connection to at least one other person. We invited people we knew well, not people we knew only by reputation.
The right amount of diversity. We range in age from young 30s to almost 50; we serve small churches and very large churches and everything in between. But we are all Presbyterian. And we represent a relatively narrow theological spectrum. Yes, yes: it’s very healthy to cross theological boundaries and be in dialogue with people who are more liberal or more conservative than you are. But this is not where we do that. That doesn’t mean we always agree. We push each other all the time. But that’s not the point of our group. The point of our group is support, accountability, and the scripture work.
A shared focus. Most of us are pastors. We do have a woman who works for a presbytery and another who directs a national network of churches, but all of us are passionate about congregational ministry, and that’s the glue that holds us together. I’m not saying our group wouldn’t succeed if we had chaplains or seminary professors among us. But our focus is on pastoral ministry.
Accountability. The papers we write are our price of admission. We all recognize that the minute we relax that expectation, we are sunk. Our group is so much more than the papers. But our group wouldn’t be what it is without them. Even if you don’t do papers, figure out what accountability you need. The group I mentioned above that gets together for recreation? Even they have an expectation: if you have two “unexcused absences” in a row, you are out.
Interminable but important conversations. We set aside time each year for good-of-the-whole conversation. This may be as simple as deciding where and when to meet the following year. Or it’s a time to work through whatever group dynamics have come up. I’m contemplating a separate post on what happens when colleagues are in contention for the same ministry position—it has happened repeatedly in our group of 18. The point is, stick with those conversations, even when they are hard (or boring). Accept what you can’t change, but name and change the things you can.
Adding people the right way. We’ve added people to the group twice, and each time we added them in a batch. Adding one person at a time doesn’t change the dynamic enough; adding two or three at a time shakes things up, but also makes us more mindful of inside jokes and communal norms we take for granted.
Inviting healthy people with healthy egos. I don’t want this to come out the wrong way. We are all wounded and broken in myriad ways, and we do not have all of our stuff together. But our group works because we all understand the value of self-care, and we do not rely on this group for therapy. Our group has a level of intimacy with one another—and we have been through some very tough stuff together—and there are years when one person leans on this group more than others. All I’m saying is, do not invite a colleague to join a group of this nature because “he is really hurting and needs something like this.” Find other ways to support that person.
Magic. There is an X factor to these things. There are cohort groups that have great people and do everything right (assuming there is such a thing) and just don’t gel. There’s some luck or grace at work here for sure. So don’t feel bad if your group doesn’t come together. Just keep trying and searching for the right fit.
Photo: Meg Peery McLaughlinIt’s become a tradition now, to re-post this piece as I prepare to head to preacher camp. Some of the details are different now [see brackets] but the basic idea is the same.
Are you a preacher? Get yourself a preacher camp:
I leave on Sunday for my yearly meeting with a group of clergy that calls itself “The Well.” (The story of how we ended up with that name is a post in itself. Suffice to say that the Hebrew word, ha-beer, had something to do with it.)
We patterned ourselves after a group of hoity-toity pastors that have been meeting together for something like 25 years. I think there are other groups like ours too. This is our [sixth] year to meet, and here’s how it works:
We are each assigned two Sundays in the upcoming lectionary year, and for each of those Sundays, we are responsible for writing and presenting an exegetical paper. These papers analyze the text and typically provide 2-3 sermon “trajectories.” There are currently  people in our group, which means we leave with a head start on 36 weeks of preaching.
People have said to me, “Aww, I wish I had a group like that.” I always tell them, “Just do it!” It’s really not that complicated to put a group together. I would love to see these groups propagate. So to encourage people to give this a try, I thought I would write down a few things we did to get started or keep going. I think most of this is taken from the hoity-toity group, so no claims at originality.
1. Start with a core and invite. Our group began with a few seminary friends kicking around the idea of a yearly lectionary study group. Once this core group was locked in, each of us invited another person. If you still need more, have the invitee invite someone else. That casts the net wider. Decide what kind of denominational/regional/theological/seminary diversity you want, or don’t want.
2. Have a covenant. We were advised to set the expectation: if you don’t have your papers done, you don’t come. That sounds harsh, but the integrity of the group depends on everyone doing the work. We have granted exceptions for truly dire situations—in those cases, the folks brought one paper instead of two.
3. Have a “dues guy.” We charge dues for basic operations of The Well—this is collected ahead of time by one of our members and kept in an account through the church he serves. Dues might pay for a few lunches, a dinner or two, evening snacks and drinks, etc. We use a sliding scale based on how big people’s continuing education budgets are, but it’s somewhere between $100-$200. Then each person is responsible for their travel expenses plus accommodations.
4. Divide the jobs and respect the royalty. We start with a short worship every morning, and someone new handles that each year. Another person draws names out of a hat to figure out who’s assigned to which date in the lectionary year. We make these determinations about 9 months ahead of time so people have time to write the papers (though I assure you, there is plenty of cramming going on as we speak). We also take turns “hosting” the event. That doesn’t mean it necessarily takes place in that person’s city, but one person is in charge of securing lodging (we like B&Bs), a place to meet (a local church, perhaps) and also moderates any discussion that needs to take place in between meetings (via e-mail). We’ve taken to calling that person the King or Queen, because they are “the decider” for that year. We have a lot of type A people in our group (if I ever write a book about our group it will be called “Too Many Alphas”) so it’s good to have someone in charge.
5. Use Dropbox. We’ve tried a number of things in terms of paper collection and distribution. We used to bring copies of our own papers for everyone, but lots of us preferred electronic copies for various technical and environmental reasons. Now we upload our papers to Dropbox so people can download them onto their laptop and/or print them, if they’re a scribbling type. We make them due two days, and if you miss the deadline, you are responsible for bringing copies of your own paper for everyone.
6. Schedule for the week: We do  minutes per paper. The person reads the text, reads the paper, and then the discussion begins. Someone watches the time so we stay on schedule. In the past, we’ve had a block of time with a scholar or pastor to talk shop, and we even try to schedule a free afternoon. Heaven.
7. Leave evenings free. I’ve heard that the hoity-toities do papers into the evening, and honestly, I don’t know how they do it—by the time we finish for the day, I’m fried. Guess that’s why they’re hoity-toity. [I have since learned that’s not correct—they are mortal like the rest of us!] Our group likes to have a leisurely dinner, then hang out late into the night. We also started a yearly competition, with a trophy awarded to the person with the most outrageous ministry story. And yes, there’s an actual trophy.
So, there it is. The Well is one of the best things I do as a clergy person and one of my happiest weeks of the year. And I say that despite the fact that I preach the lectionary less than half the time. The scripture study is awesome and stimulating, and of course, spending time with other people who “get it” and with whom you can be real is HUGE. I think I laugh more that week than I do the rest of the year.