As you sit in theater seats, preparing for your bulletin and hymnal free worship experience, you see the worship preparations. The drummer sits encased in Plexiglas so as not to offend. Three eight foot LED screens show animated effects of leaves falling and upcoming events. Robotic lights bow in reverent anticipation of the coming worship show.
Four electric guitarists, a bass and keyboard enforce the vocals. Finally, it’s “Go Time” the words scroll on the screen with video clips of wilderness wonders and smiling disciples. The church has arrived at what it thinks is the height of worship – no music director, no hymnals, no printed music. Finally, the church is freed to a true contemporary experience.
A One Stringed Instrument
The worship team didn’t see it coming. Week after week they focused on just being a “group of guys” who loved Jesus and who practiced for worship without structure. On Sunday the first worship song flowed smoothly into the next … and the next. A few old timers sat due to the length of standing. A 50 channel audio and video mixer ensures that the sound and visuals blend perfectly. Wait … there’s a fly in the ointment – “coupled resonance” – Two pendulums suspended from a common support will swing back and forth in intriguing patterns if the support allows the motion of one pendulum to influence the motion of the other.
The guitarists in the “worship zone” didn’t see it like a frog in heating water. The worshipers sensed it but didn’t want to nay-say the service filled with a stage of musicians and vocalists. Like a pendulum, you could count the hidden issue – 1, 2 ,3, 4 … 1, 2, 3, 4 … 1,2,3,4. In an attempt to sound worshipful, every praise song in the service was 4/4 time.
Some tempos were faster, others slower, but the praise service descended to a uniform “neo-chant” of 4/4 signature. Then to make sure the people receive a full worship experience, the musicians added an extra 15 minutes of “neo-chant” praise songs.
Like pendulums that move almost magically in sync, the musicians desiring to have free worship, with no director, moved in unplanned sameness. The entire congregation, resonating with the musicians, swayed in the same monotonous, one stringed worship.
If you are leading worship, consider yourself a chef in God’s kitchen. Gather a few of your leaders together and watch an episode of Chef’s Table and consider how to add beauty and variety into your service.
Think craft and not quantity. How can the Spirit of creation breath variety into your music service? Take an old hymnal and consider the different tempos, accents and rests as a touchstone to ensure variety in your service. Consult with a professional church musician on how to bring variety to the worship table.
Elect a volunteer musician to serve as “Music Leader” of the month who, working with the pastor, will direct both the worship leaders and the congregation. The Music Leader will not let the congregation escape with mediocre singing. Be willing to stop the music in order to take the singers with you.
Next Sunday, your people will not know how you improved the worship experience, but they will be swaying in resonance with the new worship banquet set before them. Bon Appétit !
See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland. – Isaiah 43:19
At a church in Sedona, the pastor preached that when he drives, he needs Jesus to take over behind the wheel. Because when he drives his anger and frustration emerge. He encouraged the congregation to turn their motor vehicles over to Jesus. In essence, you would become a passenger with Jesus as the divine Cruise Control.
As I listened to him, I thought if Jesus were born today, would he ever get a speeding ticket? While driving on Dove Valley Parkway in Phoenix, would he drive the legal limit while raging drivers tailgated him and flashed lights to pass? Here is how it would have played out …
“And the 12 interns of Jesus followed him in his crimson sparkle red Kia Soul (custom plate “4GIVE”) as he traveled the Dove Valley Parkway in moderate traffic. Jesus, late for a speaking engagement at a Scottsdale synagogue, drove ten miles over the limit on the road that ran through pristine desert.
While at the lunch, one of the interns clicked on his phone video and interviewed Jesus on why he drove over the speed limit. “Was it a sin?”
Jesus smiled and said, “The speed limit was made for people and not people for the speed limit. Put some Soul in your drive!”
The Sedona pastor lacked “SOUL” in his message. Attempting to transform human activities into a mindless, soulless default to the Creator, he forgot that “Soul” living means both the upward connection with the Divine and the horizontal relationship with our fellow travelers.
Too many followers seek an “automatic” spiritual life when Jesus drives a 5-speed.
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In today’s blog, you will be receive insights in how to visit a church like an insurance adjuster. In my insurance adjusting career handling all sorts of serious claims across the US, one of my favorite reads was Don Winslow’s “California Fire and Life” –
“Jack Wade was the rising star of the Orange County Sheriffs Department’s arson unit, but a minor scandal cost him everything, except his encyclopedic knowledge of fire. Now working as an insurance claims investigator, Jack is called in to examine a suspicious claim …”
Waving my author wand in a circle three times, I empower you, reader, as “Church Claims Investigator” to prepare you evaluate the claims made by the next church you visit. Can you sniff through the assertions of a church to determine whether this group is a safe match for you and your family? The insights given below will likely raise questions in your journey:
Rule one: ask lots of questions
Rule two: there is no bad question.
Your first assignment begins now …
… Your First Visit
… Begins with the worship bulletin. Below is an example of a church we have visited frequently. The first step, do a survey of the balance between men and women serving in the church. In the bulletin below, count how many men are listed in the bulletin compared to number of women. In a second pass, count how many females are serving in leadership roles, versus watching babies in the nursery, serving coffee or working as office receptionist.
The yellow highlights in the bulletin below show how the church sends the message that female leaders are welcome here:
Before you attend the church, you can visit its website’s leadership area. We visited another prominent local church a few times. Below is their website today. Let’s click on this and see what you can observe compared to the example of the United Methodist Church bulletin above:
Upon clicking “Leadership” –
Blurring out the faces and descriptions, you get the picture that males run the church. A review of their doctrinal statement would support that white, straight males run the church.
Who is valued?
In light of who holds the senior leadership positions, whose voice will be heard? Who is relegated to support roles simply due to their gender?
I rewrote this blog to attempt to give it more a PG-13 perspective, redacting some severely toxic church leaders who made the local news. The tools given to you in this blog, will give you more freedom and fulfillment in your church journey.
Should you find yourself attracted to a male led church, I respect your decision and pray God blesses you. Please do your homework to determine how this male domination extends to the life choices of you and your daughters.
Example – We visited a local church. All the pastors and elders were male. The women sat at a different table from the men. Women were groomed to have a career under the protection of their husbands, meaning no career of their own. For example, a woman could work in the front office of her husband’s insurance agency.
Divorcees were second class citizens and grown children of divorce were suspect. Gay people have no place at the table. Home school is promoted to advocate separation from sinful society. And, now, most troubling, church discipline is to be administered from the pastor down in the church.
The top down church discipline means that the pastor doles out discipline he sees fit in a tight chain-of-command over the elders, the elders over the church members … the husband over the wives. In essence, this church attempted to create a male dominated plantation style of leadership, where any dissent was met with threat of shunning and possibly corporal punishment.
If a faith group like the above entered a contestant onto the Bachelorette, their first choice would be … Luke P, who made a final comment that “men need to provide leadership and guidance for their wives.”
In light of the disastrous outcome of Luke P’s series on The Bachelorette, one is reminded of H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic book, Christ and Culture. Niebuhr described five views how Christians live and engage in their surrounding culture. [Richard Niebhur’s older brother, Reinhold, composed “The Serenity Prayer,” so often used in Alcoholics Anonymous.]
Christ against culture occupies one extreme of the continuum. All expressions of culture outside the church are viewed with a high degree of suspicion and as irreparably corrupted by sin. They are to be withdrawn from and avoided as much as possible. Traditional ascetic communities as well as various sectarian and fundamentalist groups would hold to some version of this view.
2. Christ of culture
Christ of culture sits at the polar opposite from the previous one. Cultural expressions as a whole are accepted uncritically and celebrated as a good thing. In theory, little or no conflict is seen between culture and Christian truth. In practice, the latter is compromised to accommodate the former. This is the view espoused by classic Gnosticism and liberal Protestantism.
3. Christ above culture
Christ above culture, a medial position between the first two, regards cultural expressions as basically good, as far as they go. However, they need to be augmented and perfected by Christian revelation and the work of the church, with Christ supreme over both. This view was expounded by Thomas Aquinas, and has been a predominant position among Roman Catholics since.
4. Christ and culture in paradox
Christ and culture in paradox is another medial option between the extremes. It sees human culture as a good creation that’s been tainted by sin. As a result, there’s a tension in the Christian’s relationship to culture, simultaneously embracing and rejecting certain aspects of it. Augustine (in part) as well as Martin Luther and Soren Kierkegaard are representative of this view.
5. Christ the transformer of culture
Christ the transformer of culture is yet another medial alternative. It also recognizes human culture as initially good and subsequently corrupted by the fall. But since Christ is redeeming all of creation, the Christian can and should work to transform culture to the glory of God. This is the view held by Augustine (again, in part) as well as John Calvin and others in the Reformed tradition.
For extra credit, please watch Luke P’s episode The Bachelorette and discuss living a Christian balanced life in today’s culture. What are the ethical issues? What are the relationship issues between men and women? What defines a healthy, balanced relationship? How can a Christian live as the “salt of the earth” without ruining the soup?
Your assignment is to visit a local church of your choice. Begin with the website. Visiting the church: Where are the women in leadership? The people of color? Are gay people welcome? Divorced people? Does their doctrinal statement read like a multi-paged single spaced Manifesto? A sample “Manifesto” copied below is one of three “Affirmations” from a church website which serves as church “twin language” relaying that the church holds to the similar code of “submission, allegiance, and protection.” In particular, these like-minded groups hold that women need men to protect them from their own life choices and decisions. Male control of finances can limit life choices such enrolling in a college course, clothing and beauty purchases, selection of friends, and education of children. It’s hard to escape when you can’t buy shoes for the journey. Children, likewise, fall under the same “discipline and protection.” Buzzwords I highlighted in red: allegiance, we have nothing good in ourselves, controlled, vulnerable, we submit, through the roles he has called us, we seek our own good when we seek the good of the body, protection and guidance, respective roles, God’s sovereign will, honor and obey, we submit.
The conservative dogmatic diagram below is widely circulated on social media to show how male “protection” runs downhill –
An excellent blog on this can found at “How Sexism in the Church Almost Ruined My Life.” Jennifer Martin subtitled her blog “A Supposedly Feminist Website.” The diagram describes a trickle down theory from the males in power. Women sheltered under this protection find a world in which they want for nothing. The man provides their financial needs and shields them from pressures of having a career. However, when a controlling or abusive man enters this world, he discovers his own gated entertainment park, where no man can question his exploits and no woman has a voice. A woman’s protected world of quilting, crafts and cran-apple pie becomes a prison walled by the cage of protection and reinforced by the complicit advice and silence of the male elders and pastors.
To suggest that women don’t need men to protect them from their own life choices upsets the entire testosterone filled male compound. I like the old Baptist motto, “It’s not how high you jump; it’s how straight you walk.” Or as Jesus said, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” John 8:36. For those who are trapped in a faith group described above, there is hope for you to escape and begin anew.
36 Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.
Now you wouldn’t believe me if I told you, but I could run like the wind blows. From that day on, if I was ever going somewhere, I was running!
As we discussed in parts I and II, you have spent time in your “thin place” seeking the heart of God. You have walked in the light of God’s Word as revealed in your living situation as you visited the “flight line” of your people. Now Sunday’s coming! In today’s blog, we will discuss how to run with your sermon come Sunday!
A few years ago, we visited a local church one Sunday where the pastor wore shorts and sandals, something like you would wear to a barbecue. We sat pretty close to the front. The worship service start time came and went. An elderly woman from the senior home next door timidly asked,”Excuse me, Reverend, my watch shows that it’s time to begin.”
The pastor stared her down and snapped, “Not according to my watch.” And continued to saunter around like he had no place to be. When he did realize it was time to start, he walked over to the choir room, snapped his fingers, whistled and commanded the choir out of their hiding place, “Come on, let’s go!”
Needless to say, my wife and I gave the pastor an “Irish Goodbye.” We stood, said nothing and walked past a few not too surprised deacons as we exited the service. As I still drive by the retirement home, I think about those captive old-timers who have no other choice but to endure Sundays there.
Head to Heart
“We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”
Archilochus (Frequently credited to an anonymous US Navy Seal)
Or as heard from sports coaches, “You play like you practice.” The movement of a sermon begins in the head then moves to the heart. Assuming you have a two or three page outline or manuscript of your sermon, Saturday night is the time to read aloud the Bible passage two or three more times and practice looking at the people while reading the phases. Listen and mark for emphasis.
There is a huge difference between writing for reading versus writing for speaking and hearing. This is a pitfall of many a sermon. Pen in hand, read your sermon aloud as though you were preaching it. Edit for sound effect. Does your text translate well to the ear? If not, mark it through as you go. These edit notes are for you.
Recommended format for preaching notes: Two columns with text 14 point
The two columns allow room for emphasis and edit notes. The 14 point font size make for a quick use in the pulpit if you need to fall back to notes. One way to preach without notes, its to uses notes as a security blanket, like the harness used for rock climbing.
If you’ve ever lost a page of sermon notes or mixed up the order, you can thank me later. If you preach enough, you will surely lead a service in a windy cemetery or under a busy ceiling fan and watch your notes blow away like leaves on a autumn day … an unnerving start of your message.
Sod’s law: ‘When you toss a coin, the more strongly you want heads, the more likely it is to come up tails’
Applying Sod’s Law, a best practice is to email yourself Sunday’s message and formatted Bible passage. Should you forget or lose your binder, you can either print the copy at church or use a smart phone or tablet to download your copy.
Now you have moved your message from your head to your heart. Your outline or manuscript is captured both in your binder and in the cloud. Your first contact at the church on Sunday can set the tone for the rest of the services.
Arrive early with expectation – Something is happening here. God is with us! This is not a show or a game. It is encountering the presence of God.
Do a quick walk around campus. Ask the custodian to check that the coffee is on and that the restrooms are open and well supplied. Applying Sod’s Law, the day you think you have your best sermon will be the Sunday with no paper in the restroom. You will be the first to hear of it and asked by your elder deacon to personally restock it now.
Do a mic check. use new batteries. Your sermon is worth it.
Prepare for technical difficulties. The best sermon can be tanked with when the projector bulb fails at the start of your service. Expect technology to fail you and roll with it. In my last church, the sanctuary’s video and sound control booth was caged in another building. A tiny speaker broadcast to the operator what was heard in the sanctuary. During one funeral, the facility manager was recording the service and running the slide projection, when an audio feedback filled the sanctuary with a heavy-metal like screech at the level of a jet aircraft. I made a visual gesture to the camera that remained unseen. I had no choice but to announce to the grieving congregation, “Excuse me, I’ll be right back.” As I stepped out on the sidewalk, I saw the facilities manager looking back at me out of the other door. My sign language confirmed – “Pull the plug!”
Check in with your musicians. Your music and choir members are your fellow ministers. A moment sharing a smile and good word breeds goodwill that will continue through the service and beyond. Tell them how glad you are to serve with them. Praise your choir leaders for their choice of music and song.
In contrast, avoid any hint of accusing a musician with a pastor’s righteous indignation, “I didn’t approve the choice of that song, and I am striking it from the bulletin today. Don’t you ever do this again without my approval.” Word of these pre-service arguments will squelch the spirit of your choir and worship team.
This would be good time to return to your office and pray for the people. Sunday mornings before services are not the time to be on-call for listening to the woes and complaints of church members. You want to be listening to the voice of God.
Look ‘Em in the Eye and Tell ‘Em What You Got!
The first step of preaching to the people
... is that you must like the people.
People have the innate ability to tell whether the pastor likes them. My first piano accompanist’s father was an Episcopal priest. His wife used to pray for him that”the people would like him, so that they would like his message.” Too many clergy treat other staff members, music people and church members as obstacles in the way of their message.
You may say, “Jim, how could that be true?”
The answer is do you actively listen to your people?
Do you welcome their opinion of value?
Do you promote and encourage them?
One of the values of working a separate career as an insurance adjuster is learning how people desperately need encouragement.
I once knew a pastor who shook hands with the people as they left church. But you learned that as he shook your hand, he looked down the line for someone he didn’t want to miss. Your eyes are the handshake with the congregation.
Make eye contact for a few seconds before your begin the service.
Make eye contact for a few seconds before you begin your message.
Make eye contact for a few seconds when you want your people to get the point.
Are you with me or have you gone home yet?
Crossing Over … barriers between you and the people
Pews corral in the people.
Aisles isolate the saints.
Pulpit cages the clergy.
The banister quarantines the choir.
I knew a Catholic priest who, during funerals, would step down from the chancel and put his hand on the casket on level with the people as he spoke to the congregation and family about what a wonderful wife and mother she was. The steel casket and flowers formed a separation layer, but the pastor’s touch made a human connection crossing the barrier.
One effective Baptist evangelist I knew mastered crossing over. This evangelist held a concurrent career singing country music in Branson, Missouri. His voice resonated like a combination of Marty Robbins and Elvis Presley. At the close of one service, as he called the people to the altar, he stepped out from behind the pulpit, crossed the front isle, stood on the first pew and made eye contact with those seated on the back row of the packed church. He appeared like a sea captain on the bow of some ancient ship peering through the fog in search of land.
The people streamed forward to recommit their lives to Christ as they realized that, even hidden on the back rows, God knew all about and cared for them.
You may not stand on a pew at your next service, but you might try walking up into an isle. A word of caution: crossing over does not replace “flight line” visits with your people during the week. A pastor’s “flight line” includes the home, hospital, surgical center, care center, golf course, camping trip, retreat, conference, fraternal organization, mission trip, workplace and entertaining in your home.
A pastor’s “flight line” includes the home, hospital, surgical center, care center, golf course, camping trip, retreat, conference, fraternal organization, mission trip, service project, workplace and entertaining in the home.
An example – Karen served as a Senior Deacon. Her late husband, JD, would join Karen and me at her private care home for home Communion. As part of crossing over ministry, the church recorded its services on DVDs and provided home players to be delivered on home visits. Here you see the ripple effect of a crossing over ministry that involved, the choir, musicians, pastors, church staff, and visiting pastor. These types of ministry extends the impact of your preaching and ministry beyond the four walls of your church. Not shown is my trying to diagnose a stubborn DVD/TV connection. In this photo, you can see Karen’s joy at the clear picture and sound as she felt part of the worship experience and that her church remembered her.
Trying to shake hands with every parishioner every Sunday, coming in and going out, may actually distract them from their encounter with God. The evangelist described a few paragraphs above ate dinner in a different home each night of the revival where he laughed and prayed and cried with the families. A trustworthy message is built in the home visit and not in the handshake on Sundays. As my wife and I visited over a dozen churches and faith groups in the Verde Valley, we received a few canned welcome letters with no personal visit, with the exception of two young missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We can learn something from them.
The most effective pastor I knew in using crossing over is Rev. Jud Souers, Pastor Emeritus of The Church at Litchfield Park, Arizona. I have seen him glide like a cat from the chancel out into the isle and look back on the chancel as though he were carrying on a dialogue between the people and God. For decades, he demonstrated the same fluid movement through his golf swing as a member of the local club for decades. For Pastor Jud, the local golf club served as his Jacob’s Well place of meeting the people.
The Lazarus Ending – the sermon that ends … and then ends again … and again
The Lazarus Ending goes like this – The pastor hints that time is late but there’s just one more point to consider. “Oh, wait, I remembered you really need to know … ” Following the benediction and closing hymn of five verses, you’re ready to leave. But wait. “Lazarus, come forth! …” The pastor, out of some need to prove her message was important, gives the people a summary of what she said in the sermon.
This sends the message, “Just in case you weren’t listening the first time …”
Lest we focus too hard on the clergy, for churches that don’t have music directors, you are now set free to sing only a few verses of a closing hymn.
Why are congregations held hostage to singing all 13 verses of Amazing Grace as though some ancient hall monitor demands they sing all verses?
Start White Hot
Listen to a few Johnny Cash songs. They start strong and hot out of the box. Some churches start their worship service like a late opening at the Department of Motor Vehicles. The only think lacking is a number dispenser.
A white hot start would feel something like the introduction of the series Chef’s Table … something is about to happen.
Schedule the Unexpected
In your sermon, give space for the “impromptu moment” for the Holy Spirit to lead and surprise. Expect the Spirit to come down … welcome this. In my first church, in the middle of an evening message. A 6’4″ young man entered the back of the sanctuary and slowly shuffled up the center isle asking aloud, “Can I find God here? … Can I find God here?”
I paused my message, realizing the message came to me. “Yes,” I announced, “You have come to the right place. You can find God here!”
Later I learned that he was a patient of the Arizona State Mental Hospital. His parents told me he would scale the barbed wire fence and wander off into the desert in search of some peace for his soul.
One Easter Sunrise in the main courtyard, church members will remember as I stood to deliver the Easter morning message, all the sprinklers clicked on then off for a half second. Not enough to soak them but enough raise the question, “Will they turn back on?”
I made eye contact with the people and broke the damp silence with, “Well … you done been baptized!”
Leave Them Wanting More
Start Two Minutes Early.
Save Fill-in-the Blank Notes for the Classroom.
Leave ‘Em Wanting More.
The Gift – take and do
In the sermon shown on Vimeo [password is grace4you], you can see where both pastor and people “crossed over” barriers: the people, in response to my prior sermon calling them to a prayer shawl ministry, crossed over the front isle and placed their prayer shawls on the prayer rail for dedication. In January 2018 I received my own prayer shawl in the hospital during my kidney cancer surgery. The prayer shawl kept me warm and reminded me of God’s presence during those long nights. I am thankful for my cousin, Karen, who first shared with me the prayer shawl ministry of her church. This ministry I shared as a gift with my congregation.
What gift will you give to your people that they can take and do?
Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.