“Overstuffed Sunday”: Situational Awareness

It was Christmas Cantata Sunday. The congregation felt the energy of the choir and orchestra guests visiting from a local university. The choir stood on both sides of the church and launched the worship experience with rendition that would give Handel chills. As the pastor processed in to start the service, she didn’t see a shadow following her threatening to devour the benefits of the visiting musicians and choir.

Image from Tony Hughes’ blog “Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory”

What could possibly, with the orchestra, visiting musicians, choir turn the sanctuary into a “shark tank”? The truth -the pastor brought her own shark into worship experience. Her own attempt to prove that she does effective work as a pastor provided the fuel for her lack of her situational awareness that may shorten her tenure at the church. {Disclaimer: Today’s blog is a composite of experiences over the last twenty churches visited. This does not single out any one male, female or a particular church or denomination. It is a common problem.}

Following the the enraptured choir processional, the pastor that Sunday marched the isle with a full manuscript sermon, a children’s sermon, a notated sharing of prayer requests and pastoral readings through the cantata. After the congregation sat, the pastor rattled through a whole page of church announcements.

Tony Hughes, in his blog “Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory” wrote, “So, how do sales people manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory after they’ve done so much good work to develop an opportunity and establish value? 

How do pastors miss the cue? In the above worship service, the pastor failed to notice that the orchestra stopped smiling during the pastoral announcements. While the congregation appreciated the naming of Brother Smith’s upcoming hernia repair and the Sister Mary’s holiday depression, the orchestra sat stone-faced.

During the pastor’s children sermon to three children, the orchestra and visiting choir sat as silent observers. Pastor and her assistant spelled JOY out of candy canes then asked the children to explain what the letters meant. The kids answered, “Joy?”

“Yes!”, said the pastor, explaining that each child will receive a chocolate candy cane. Then pastor answered a child who asked, “Do these candy canes really taste like chocolate?” “Yes, they taste like chocolate.”

The pastor held a girl’s hand as she walked the child back to her pew. Upon arrival the girl did not want to be seated; so, the pastor shuffled the girl forward on isle to be seated with the pastor. Meanwhile, the choir and orchestra sat silent.

Finally, the announcements, children’s sermon and prayer requests over, the orchestra launched into a Christmas medley of classic hymns with the choir. On the front row, unseen by the pastor, the lead violinist smiled in the joy of worship. We waited so long in the service to see that smile.

Why do pastors lose their off switch?

The Apostle Paul wrote, “I have the right to do anything,” you say–but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”–but not everything is constructive (I Cor 10:23 NIV).

Pastors have Not Learned the Art of Reading Their People

Pastors learn to read their sermon notes so they don’t get lost, but they’re not taught to read the congregation so the people are not lost.

Pastors learn to read their sermon notes so they don’t get lost, but they’re not taught to read the congregation so the people are not lost.

Let’s do a mini-survey. When you last attended church, did the pastor’s animated slide presentation (15 slides and a 12 Bible passages) stop when the point was made and the congregation was moved or did he plow on to the last slide? At that point the sermon turned dry as an overcooked Thanksgiving turkey.

This process of “covering the material” is the clergy version of “You can’t leave the table until the plate is empty.” This leaves everyone staring blankly and wondering when will it end? This is why in other blogs, I have been adverse to “fill-in-the-blank notes” as they guarantee attempts to “cover the material.” As. St. Paul said, “Not everything is beneficial.”

The next culprit – slide presentations lend themselves toward “material covering” sermons. If your goal is “material covering,” save it for your quilting ministry. Over the last half-dozen churches we visited, the pastors have quoted from ten to twelve different Bible passages as though quantity will prove that the pastor said something that stuck.

Pastors Lack the Directed Attention for Those Off Task

You may say, “Jim, I know I’ve been covering material. I don’t know what to do to engage my people. I can see their eyes glazing but what can I do?”

Bruce H. Wilkinson, Founder of Walk Thru the Bible Ministries, wrote the forward in Dr. Howard Hendricks’ “Teaching to Change Lives.” One day in seminary Bruce tested the master professor — he just stared out the window.

Teaching to Change Lives: Seven Proven Ways to Make Your Teaching Come Alive

Dr. Hendricks, rather than just “covering the material”, walked out from behind the desk.

Wilkinson stared out the window.

Dr. Hendricks drew terrific charts and told jokes. Lots of jokes

Still Wilkinson stared out the window.

Finally, three minutes into this, Dr. Hendricks ran down the aisle and screamed, “Wilkinson! What on earth are you looking at?”

Wilkinson apologized but didn’t tell Dr. Hendricks about the “little experiment” until years later. I recommend “Teaching to Change Lives” as an excellent tool for pastors.

Secrets of Directed Attention

My wife, Carolyn, is a retired elementary principal of an excelling school and a former orchestra teacher. She said the master teachers know how to speak to the class while tapping their nails on the desk of a child who is “looking out the window” or opening the book of a student to the correct page while talking with the class about the subject. The master teacher directs attention through their awareness of each child in the room and that child’s needs.


Pastor Jim gives you permission starting this Sunday …

… Permission to end your sermon at the height of learning

… Permission to use only three of your fifteen Bible verses

… Permission to leave your people wanting more of God and of your message.

At the beginning of your service notes write, “Read the people.” Arrive early in the Sanctuary and begin reading by what the atmosphere is telling you. Is the air conditioning set right? New batteries in your microphone (because you know the old-timer at the sound booth likes to run batteries until they die – with your sermon)? Paper in the restrooms? Coffee urns full? Creamer and sweetener stocked?

In the mid-service, “Read the people.” Are they with you? Are you dragging every verse out of every hymn as though you are leading a funeral dirge?

Mid-sermon and in your notes write – “Read the People.” Plan an “impromptu moment” in every service in which you give God room to work rather than just your “covering the material.”

Pause before you begin your sermon … Read the people. Are they ready? Are you ready? Give a moment of silence before you launch.

Mid-sermon and in your notes write – “Read the People.” Plan an “impromptu moment” in every service in which you give God room to work rather than just your “covering the material.”

Think back to your childhood when you watched “Superman,” “Batman” or “Lost in Space”- episodes which all ended with cliffhangers … “To Be Continued!”

Take your people reading skills to the next level. At your welcome booth, give your church guests a two part perforated response card

Take your people reading skills to the next level. At your welcome booth, give your church guests a two-part perforated response card –

Scan the QR with your smartphone to try the survey Pastor Jim wrote to help pastors read their people. Caution: Don’t read the responses on Mondays. Learn from them and share with your
worship leaders.

“You know, I’m just vanilla … but remember … vanilla is the world’s favorite flavor!”

Dr. C.W. Brister, Christian Ministry Professor

Vanilla Extract

You may say, “Jim, is there hope for me and my teaching or preaching?” Looking back, I have made every misstep described above. I remember my first day in Christian Ministry class with Dr. C.W. Brister, Chair of Pastoral Ministry at SWBTS seminary. When I sat in a chair to the side and just behind the professor in the packed classroom, he asked me to move to a chair within his line of sight. Dr. Brister, gentle-spoken and slow-paced, said, “You know, I’m just vanilla … but remember … vanilla is the world’s favorite flavor!” A few weeks later as I walked late to attend chapel at max capacity, a most dynamic voice spoke over the narthex speakers. The voice coaxed and prodded the students, like a lifeguard tossing a life preserver. As I opened the door, to my surprise, as guest preacher that day stood Mr. Vanilla! Dr. Brister that day held each seminarian captive in his line of sight and let me know there was room even for me in God’s service.

Just Vanilla,

Pastor Jim

Hint: If you try the SurveyMonkey.com free version of a “Church Experience Feedback Survey,” turn multiple responses to “ON” and no limit to responses. Create a SurveyMonkey.com account and copy our “Church Experience Feedback Survey” questions to set up your own survey. Change your settings as described below. This will allow multiple responses from the same device – great for a kiosk.

Great Preaching (Part II): Max Your Understanding in Preaching!

Meet Max! Max Understanding. *

For this reason we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding. – Colossians 1:9

Too much preaching is a reaction to something rather than addressing insights gained by “spiritual understanding.” It’s Advent? OK, it’s time to rework an old sermon on the birth of Jesus. Offerings down or time for the annual pledge drive?, then work up a not-to-pushy sermon on giving and avoid any texts that speak of Jesus driving the money changers from temple. We can speak of changing the world … as long as this change doesn’t swap our liturgical colors or interrupt our capital improvement drive.

Reactionary preaching is the “astroturfing” of the wild lilies of the field. A predictable form haunts Sunday’s services like a woman who received too many Botox injections. Even churches that began as wild revolutionaries that held services in open fields have turned electric guitars and drums into a loud monotonous chant of the same decibel crunching pitch and meter.
Artificial plastic smiles are frozen on every face without real spiritual movement.

Reactionary preaching is the “astroturfing” of the wild lilies of the field. A predictable form haunts Sunday’s services like a woman who received too many Botox injections – artificial plastic smiles are frozen on every face without movement.

To move beyond reaction to understanding, you need Max understanding! It was 8:00 p.m. on Friday night of Cinco de Mayo weekend when Max, our neighbor’s Border Collie started barking. An hour of barking later, I looked and saw that our retired neighbors were out with the truck and camper gone. At 10:00 p.m. I began reacting, “How dare they go away and leave their dog. It’s disrespectful to the neighbors!” I considered calling their cell phone … if I had it. At 1:00 a.m., Max had barked non-stop for three hours. I climbed in my car to confirm they were gone and shined my flashlight over the back fence in the backyard to rule out another problem.

A fitful night of sleeping in the guest room, with dreams of calling animal control and leaving a nasty letter on the door, I awakened to attend an all-day course in Flagstaff. I returned home only to see that the truck and camper were still gone and as I stepped on the patio — barking. Reaction had run its predictable course.

It was here that God showed me how I went through my life and ministry … reacting in one form or another, allowing circumstance and calendar to drive my life, attitude and message. I then looked at Max with the eyes of understanding and saw the old dog, recently diagnosed with advanced cancer, staring for his masters at the back of their house, where he remained barking in that position for hours. His jaw hung slack and his coat now appeared dull and disheveled. His bark now a weak rasp, barely audible. His normal brisk walk became a slow shuffle back under the deck. I saw no food or water were in sight.

Now, understanding awakened. “What if our neighbors had an accident or illness and could not return or communicate to care for their beloved pet they raised since a puppy?” “What if the grown daughter, who has placed other burdens on her parents, got carried away in her own Cinco de Mayo activities to the extent of ignoring old Max.

Understanding plowed through the brick-like surface of my astroturfed reaction and moved me into action. I cooked two hot dogs and put them over the fence with a pail of cool water and called Max, but he was too weak to come. No barking was heard that night. I was now afraid Max had died. The next morning, I looked off the porch and saw that Max was now walking and no longer panting. The hot dogs were gone. As he took his position again on guard at the back of the house.

Understanding plows through the brick-like surface of our astroturfed reaction and creates a bloom of transformation

When Jesus disappeared as a boy in Jerusalem, his parents found him three days later in the temple:  

Now so it was that after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions.
And all who heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers.
So when they saw Him, they were amazed.
Luke 2:46-48 (NKJV)

As you have your Bible passage in hand, and the predictable elements pushing you forward through the calendar of teaching and preaching, take a moment and look through the the Bible passage and the issues beating their drums in your ears.

If you will pause and listen to the the Holy Spirit, you will give your people pails of cool water that will not only refresh them but that they can share with a thirsty world. Your church members in the workplace live in a world built on action and reaction. Imagine the transformation when they learn how to max understanding in the workplace, turning reaction, that breeds more reactions, into transformation.

*The image above is that of our Border Collie mix, Shadow. Tonight as I checked on old Max. The house was still dark. Now there is no barking and no sign of Max. I think of how Max’s owners would feel knowing that their neighbors reached over the fence to their distressed companion with of a pail of cool water and warm hot dogs.

In the next video blog, we will discuss some practical tools that you can use to Max Understanding in your Walk to Great Preaching.

-Pastor Jim

The Preacher’s Crawl

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. – St. Paul

Preach: Crawl, Walk, Run! is not about how to preach, which is often a personal subject wrapped up in ego. Rather this is a pool of the best resources on 1. how to read the Bible in a worship service, 2. discover your thin-place where God speaks with you in your sermon preparation, 3. tools to prepare you for preaching and 4. launch ideas for your sermon.   

Back again with you after after a few weeks delay for a shed wiring project followed by my wife’s surgery. Thanks for waiting – the shed now has lighting and my wife is recovering. This delay stands in contrast to your regimented weeks marked by Sundays rapidly approaching.

I remember attending our sons’s Saturday soccer games in body while my mind was away on Sunday’s sermon. Present in body but absent in spirit. One regret was that I lacked of a healthy crawl toward Sundays’ services.

Worship Plan Book: Your denomination likely has some sort of plan book for worship and preaching planning. If you teach Sunday School, you likely use a teacher’s guide. I have recently used the United Church of Christ Desk Calendar and Plan Book –

Plan books such as these orbit around the Revised Common Lectionary, a three year plan of Bible readings that provide a guide of passages for reading and preaching based on the church year: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter Seasons after Pentecost.

You may, such as I, come from a tradition that doesn’t follow the church calendar. You may consider yourself an “expository preacher” who preaches through the Bible verse by verse. My response, “That’s great!… But beware of the instrument that plays only one note.”

In preparing for these blogs, my wife and I visited many churches in the Verde Valley of Arizona – from Methodist to Nazarene, from Community to Seventh Day Adventist. We noticed many with beautiful views but empty parking lots. We also noted a lack of women women participating in the worship services (This will be subject of a future blog … that women’s ministry means more than just the kitchen, the nursery and the coffee pot! Oouch!

In one church, the pastor had committed to preaching through a series of messages as part of a program that came complete with slides. Though we arrived at the service ten minutes late and the pastor baptized some believers earlier in the service, the pastor determined that he could not push the sermon material to the next week. The fill-in-the blanks sermon note acted like grains of sand dribbling down in an hourglass. The pastor’s prepackaged sermon agenda held him in a grip tighter than any liturgical calendar. I must confess that during a merciful break for prayer, my wife and I slipped out before the conclusion. Almost every blank in the sermon notes could be answered by writing the word, “Jesus.”

Enter Your “Thin Space”: Take your worship planner and enter into your “thin space,” a sacred space where you encounter God. For me, I would take my Anglican prayer beads and go on a prayer walk on the top of a limestone bluff, overlooking Wet Beaver Creek on our Rimrock property, home to rattlesnakes, deer and beaver … and and occasional mountain lion.

He restores my soul …

In the shadow of this mesquite tree, I encountered the presence of God

When Moses encountered God in his “thin place,” he said, “I will now turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush does not burn.”

In the shadow of an old mesquite tree, I encountered God and listened to the voice of the Spirit.

One guest preacher from we hosted at my first church told me his “thin place” was the altar area of the sanctuary at night. Alone in the church, he would place himself prone before the altar and seek God’s presence and ask for insights into God’s message for the people. His personal insight into his “thin place” has stayed with me 34 years. To this day I don’t think his prominent congregation knew of his practice.

All great preaching and teaching begins with discovering your “thin place” and listening to the voice of God. The Spirit of God will prompt your preaching and worship leading only as it springs out of your own experience with God.

Out of the above encounter, you may ask the Spirit to guide you in your worship and preaching preparation. Be prepared … but be open for the Spirit to change your plans.

Feed Your Staff: Church staff’s planning and production depend on your sharing with them. You may now have a quarter of the year charted, for which your worship leader and office staff will rise up and call you blessed. Your staff can now can select music and live in hopes they might print the church bulletin before Friday. There’s nothing more awkward than the church administrator asking the pastor on Thursday, “Well, do you have a sermon title?” The pastor hears this question as, “You mean with all the hours you had this week, you have no clue what you are saying Sunday?”

“Well, do you have a sermon title?” The pastor hears this question as, “You mean with all the time you golfed this week, you have no clue what you are saying Sunday?”

I have experienced more than one Sunday, where I awakened at 4:00 a.m. with the hopes of finishing Sunday’s message. There’s no worse “agony” of preaching than staring at a full coffee cup and a blank screen at zero-dark-thirty on Sunday morning. Thankfully, those mornings were the exception. I share this to affirm that you are not abnormal to encounter this wild beast.

Internalize the Passage: Now, here is a resource most often overlooked by today’s clergy – the oral interpretation of the Word. First, visit www.Biblegateway.com and look up your passage in New International Version (NIV). Click on the speaker arrow and you can listen to the narrated reading of your passage. Print out your passage and as your listen, make marks on your passage, noting where the reader pauses and how phrases are emphasized.

Now make it yours – Read the passage through as the narrator gave … until you are comfortable with the words. Now practice it and emphasize the passage so that the reading makes the most sense to you. Until you have the passage in you, you will not be able to share it from you. Too many preachers try to talk about the Bible rather than sharing what they have experienced in the Bible.

Too many preachers and teachers try to talk about the Bible rather than sharing from what they have experienced in the Bible.

How many times do you need to read a passage to internalize it? I recommend three times listening while marking from the narrator. Then three to four times on your own. So, let’s say a good biblical reading aloud seven times.

OK, you have crawled by encountering God in your “thin-place,” shared with your staff, and internalized the passage. Your choir leader is sings your praises as she can select music for a full quarter. And your church administrator no longer thinks you are golfing way to much as her bulletin is done by Thursday.

Hold the phone – we are not done. This is “Crawl …” In the next blog, we will “Walk” … putting flesh to the passage that has become part of your life.

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?

– Romans 10:14

-Pastor Jim

Special thanks to my wife, Carol, whose editing fixed issues where I was limited by a growing cataract in my left eye.