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