Everything we do? (Nope.)

The preacher said, “Everything we do is worship!”  Then the preacher invited “his” congregation to turn in their Bibles to Revelation 19:10.  The section reads as follows:

Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, “You must not do that!  I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus.  Worship God.  For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.”  (ESV)

. . . and I wondered how much time he thought we should be spending in obeisance.  Are we really to be falling down and doing homage at all times?

It is not that everything we do is worship.  No, worship is defined more specifically than that.  Indirectly, some other activities might be said to become worship, sort of, but worship is worship, and other things are not worship.  It’s really about that simple.

It’s the same thing with praise, too.  Maybe you have heard a prayer that goes something like this:

LordWeThankYouForLettingUsGatherHereToSingTheseWonderfulSongsOf PraiseToYourName (when the songs had actually consisted of “In the Sweet By and By,” “I’m in the Gloryland Way,” “Be with Me, Lord,” and “Abide with Me”).

It either is, or it ain’t.  It should be relatively clear whether a song’s words are those of praise or worship to God.  Praise is praise, and worship is worship.  Other things are other things.

Worship is the chief end of man.  By “end,” I mean both the present end-goal and the final, continuing activity of God’s people, as indicated in the Apocalypse (Revelation).  And the glorification of God in and through our lives is a worthy ideal, but not everything in this life is worship.

Epilogue

Sometimes I think I’m the only one who notices that preachers have a vested interest in much of what they do.  If everything a church is understood as worship, and preachers are involved in everything a church does, then preachers’ roles are effectively aggrandized, and preachers themselves benefit.  Because of this vested interest, preachers’ words ought to be weighed carefully.

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Voices: yeah … no (993)

The problems with the clergy-laity system are a) centuries old and b) pandemic.  Most of my disputes with this system run pretty deep and are long-lived,¹ but this particular rant is rather shallow.

octo

Having recently visited a church I’d been a member of years ago, in which one preacher had filled the pulpit for about 50 years, I suppose it was inevitable that, soon after, I saw two articles about other, way-too-long-term preachers.  (These things seem to come in multiples.)  First, the man I once knew.  Then, another octogenarian, celebrating 50 years with the same church.  And then a feature article about a guy who was with one church more than a quarter-century and with another church in the same city for 10 years.

This man is surely a wonderful man, with a good heart and a love for God.

But he is quoted as having said … and, you know, everything has the potential for being quoted out of context … but, get this:

Church growth must begin with the preacher.

Yeah . . . NO.

Oh, my goodness. . . .

First off, the term “church growth” is loaded, and I don’t accept its chock-full package as entirely worthy of discussion.  Sure, the growing of churches is likely a good thing — at least potentially so, for some churches grow merely in an opposite reaction to the decline of other churches, which fact makes the growth rather moot.  Numerical growth in terms of overall congregational “membership,” then, may be good but also may be neutral.  Spiritual growth is not quantifiable.  In my experience, “church growth ‘experts’ ” focus almost exclusively on quantifiable data.

Even if one accepts (or ignores as loaded) the term “church growth,” the notion that “growth much begin with the preacher” is ludicrous on at least two levels.

  1. First, the presence of a preacher is required by no biblical text that I know of, and this fact negates the “must.”
  2. Moreover, I would assert that if either spiritual or numerical growth is preacher-driven, it is growth that is not going to last. 

Preachers, of course you should keep growing and not become stagnant.  (This self-evident truth may get at the speaker’s intent more than the ripped-from-context quote.)  My rant here is in no way intended to ignore the human tendency to become stale.  I have had good models in staying current in one’s discipline, including my grad advisor Ken Singleton, who, for instance, annually updates his repertoire list with new, good music, refusing to do anything but grow.  Preachers should do similar things, studying new books and documents and Greek and methods, etc.  But really, preachers, don’t be deceived into thinking that you should function as the center of things.

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P.S. to the Christian Chronicle:  I chose not to read this article in depth.  It’s a matter of time and priorities for me.  But let’s think about the big, bold quotation at the top of the page for a moment.  Couldn’t you have chosen a better seven-word quote to pull out for highlighting?  Surely there were better, more on-target things that he said!  🙂

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¹ Grandmother Kathryn Ritchie (1909-1988) taught me that “long-lived” was originally pronounced with a long “i,” as in “dive.”  I have trouble saying it that way now, because everyone thinks it’s wrong.  Often, taking the less popular way ends up being right, right?

Zooming out on preaching (2)

Continuing now from the last post, in an effort to gain perspective on preaching.  This conclusion is lighter in nature than the prior material.

Communication 101.  Just a quick, logistical bit here.  When one person talks to an assembled group for an extended period of time, it is incumbent on that speaker to ensure that he is actually communicating and not merely going through the motions of sermonizing just to say sermonizing has been done.  Sometimes, in their attempts to communicate, preachers will come out from behind a large piece of furniture and descend from the platform.  This gesture is well intended and may be just what the PA prescribed, in some buildings.   But if you step down off a raised platform to a lower level, take care that you are not inhibiting visual communication.  Don’t make it more difficult for the gathered saints to see your face while you talk.

Sermons vs. other duties. Paid preachers often have huge lists of responsibilities (that go unnoticed until not handled).  If we need to hire staff people to mow grass, buy supplies, answer phones, and such, OK.  In many cases, it may be a wiser use of church funds to pay a man to take care of those things than to teach publicly.  More certainly, it is not the best use of corporate time to spend 30 minutes listening to one man.  Pay him for what is needed in each autonomous congregation (remembering that denominational guidelines and structures are suprabiblical and should be servants, where they are permitted by human will to exist, and not masters), but do not insist tacitly that he must preach in order to earn his keep—especially if his sermons are not effective.

On the other hand, it might also be noted that sermons can contribute more than instruction to the gathered believers.  There is such a thing as preaching that inspires, convicts, and ushers hearts into a greater God-consciousness.  When a sermon does one of these things, it can in fact be vitally connected with worship, as well as with teaching.

Public preachers/teachers, if you have not already done so, you might add to your spiritual arsenal some sermons that point more to God’s perfect holiness than to the “three points and a poem” of your perfect outline.  Why not resolve to direct hearts and minds more to the Almighty than to your individual ideas and individual or sectarian interpretations?

~ ~ ~

As we are able, let us zoom out on preaching.  Let us not be so focused-in on the tradition that we forget that preaching is just that–a tradition.  Let us see clearly, in broader perspective, what the Christian assembly can be.  That potential is not nearly as dependent on sermons as we might think.

Zooming out on preaching

A very good friend (ironically, once a preacher!) has expressed his vision of Bible reading in terms of “zooming out.”  In hermeneutical terms, this zooming out demands sensitivity to larger literary contexts.  “Book-level context,” he calls it.

Today I’d like to extend this “zooming out” to the tradition of preaching in the Christian assembly.  Where does preaching fit in the context of Christian gatherings?

Worship or Not Worship?  Worship, which most churches would list quite high among their “purposes” in gathering, is generally not directly in view during a typical sermon.  In fact, I would suggest that worship is not even included in, say, 98% of the sermons I’ve heard.  It seems to me, then, that churches’ stated values and their practices are not always aligned.  Put flatly:  authentic worship is more important, and more effectual in the soul and mind, than the content of most sermons.  Preaching, I suggest, is overused in assemblies, if not overrated.

Sermons—ostensibly the preacher’s “bread and butter” task—have in my tradition been used primarily for instruction and exhortation.  To the extent this is true for you, sermons move into a category separate from worshipful praying and singing.  If one views everything done by “clergy” and “laity” (forgive the employ of unbiblical terms and concepts here, but you know what I mean) as “worship,” then one’s view of sermons will be different.  Even sequential liturgy, though–no matter how deep and how biblical–does not always consist entirely of worship, nor should it.  For sake of discussion here, let’s assume that, no matter whether you are a “high church” or “low church” practitioner, of the things said and done in a church gathering, 1) some are worship, and 2) some are not.  This is as it should be, and sermons must be recognized as part of the latter category, by and large.

ImbalancedInstructional sermons tend to occupy an unjustifiably large proportion of time in the assembly.  While this imbalance may be attributed to a sincere desire to avert creeping (landsliding?) biblical ignorance on the part of the people in the pews, one must ask whether sermons are really doing much to stem the tide.  By most measures I’ve seen, and by personal observation, professing Christians are more ignorant of the content of their Bibles than we were 50 years ago.

Effective?  Just as other activities in the Christian assembly—regardless of the length of time devoted to them—sermons should be effective. Perhaps sermons in your experience have in fact been largely effective.  In mine, not so much. If you’re inclined to write this opinion off as mere annoyance or rebellion, please don’t.  At least, not without realizing that my experience has included some very biblically centered, honest, decent, hard-working preacher-types (whose names, by the by, are Mike, Jim, Roy, Greg, Jerry, Peter, John, Chris, Terry, and Dale) … there is only one preacher I’ve ever heard on a weekly basis that I don’t respect to some significant extent, and his name is not in that list!

I would say that my experience of sermons has probably been a 5 on the scholarly scale of 1-10 (whereas your basic Presbyterian sermon diet might have been a 6), and my intake has been more like an 8 on the biblically faithful scale.  It is neither a lack of scholarliness nor a lack of faithful respect for scripture that I decry.  No,  it is the sermon mode, the method that’s lacking.  I don’t feeling like counting the sermons I’ve heard, but the number of seriously effective ones is appallingly low.

~ ~ ~

As we are able, while standing on our most stable tripods, let us hit the zoom-out buttons on our individual camcorders.  Let us not be so focused-in on the tradition of preaching that we forget that it is largely, well … a tradition.  Let us see clearly, in broader perspective, what the Christian assembly can be.  That potential is not nearly as dependent on sermons as we might think.

To be continued . . .

A suitcase full of degrees

I once sat in a “congregational meeting” in which a preacher’s future was being discussed.  This situation involved an “independent” congregational polity (as is assumed by most Christian Church and Church of Christ groups … and, originally, the Congregational Church and presumably the Church of the Brethren and Freewill Baptists and many others). In this meeting, a man stood and proclaimed, “We don’t need no suitcase full a’ degreez ta preech da word a’ God!”  His statement seemed to be denying the value of education in preparing one for teaching a congregation from the Bible, but I think the words betrayed more than that—particularly, the man’s distaste for the preacher in question.  (The former hoped the latter would be let go.  Fortunately, the preacher wasn’t in the room at the time!)

I’m of two minds on the question of education and public teaching “ministry”:

ON ONE HAND, I affirm that a sound education in proper Biblical studies is helpful, if not essential, if one is going to be teaching.  In fact, I can’t imagine someone standing up, presuming to teach others, without having

  • delved deeply into biblical texts under the tutelage of someone more learned
  • recognized and developed some natural gift and/or training in communication
  • learned some Hebrew and/or Greek
  • come to understand hermeneutical principles, to some extent

These things are just some of the benefits of having studied the Bible formally—whether in a college/university or in some other setting.  I’m not dealing here with “religion” studies or “theology” studies as separate from “biblical studies,” because I frankly think religion and theology decrease decidedly in value when separated from biblical studies.  Studies in logic and rhetoric and communication and homiletics may also be of great aid, whether or not one has the natural giftedness in assembling and communicating instructive thoughts.

ON THE OTHER HAND, having been around for a while, I would call into question the value of some ministerial education.  Peripheral pragmatics seems to rule in so many “pastors'” vocational lives, and their “training” can end up having little to do with the activities with which their weeks are filled.

Actually, some of the better teaching ministers I’ve known of do not have PhDs.  A few icons in my own vocational field come to mind here, as well:  Bob Reynolds, Jerry Junkin, Gene Corporon, Allan McMurray, and Craig Kirchhoff.  None of these men earned a doctorate, yet their art, their craft, and their professional experience has justifiably earned them highest berths in the field of collegiate and professional wind band conducting (a field which all the newer-comers must have doctorates in order to enter, much less to succeed in).  It is not always a direct result of a set amount (or type) of education that one ends up being an exemplary leader.

What do you think?  Ever known a D.Div. or Ph.D. “pastor” that wasn’t as well-placed in his field as someone without a Bible or ministry degree at all?

A minute is enough

A few ruminations on (im)patience, time, and the use of time today.

A guy I worked for temporarily once–Don “D.J.” Martin–struck me as quite a kind, sensitive soul, and I was included in a distribution of an article he’d found on being “busier than thou.”  This article provoked thought in me, and I still have it in a file, but I’m not sure I’ve made much long-term progress in the area of managing my busyness in a way that keeps “margin” and allows sufficiently for serendipities and for people.

In this world, some of us seem more rushed than others.  As the summer begins for me, I am not as rushed, but that doesn’t mean I’m less constrained.  It only means I have more choice about how I spend my time, and bigger chunks of time for bigger projects.

This morning, having seen my first video of a teeny-bopper-pop “artist” singer, I’m caused to list ten things in the entertainment arena that I only have a minute for.  In some cases, 60 seconds is probably too much.  These are in no particular order:

  1. Rap
  2. Justin Bieber’s music
  3. Thumping bass (in this case, I have only about three seconds of patience and am anything but apologetic about it)
  4. The TV show “Glee”
  5. TV commercials
  6. Any (non-) “reality” show that involves singers or dancers
  7. Any other (non-) “reality” show
  8. Gratuitous drumming in beginning band pieces
  9. Guitar players who think they have something to offer the world of music when in reality they’re just playing the same chords with the same strumming motions and the same pretentious sense of self-importance as 432,247 other guitarists this month
  10. Preachers that have the appearance, demeanor, and theology of stereotypical used car salesmen (this phenomenon is worse than bad entertainment, because it dangerously mixes eternal things with mere annoyance)

#10 may seem to be in the entertainment category by some careless mistake.  Actually, not.  🙂  Sixty seconds of the hawking of religion from a self-serving pulpit is plenty.  Yesterday’s preacher had quite a decent sense of real ministry for the masses, and some good plans to go along with it, but his self-important wasting of time with verbal nonsense was something I had no time for, so I left early.

On the other hand, I had a few extra moments for holding and horsing around with my toddler today, and I liked those moments.  A minute is NOT enough for your kid.

Clergy class considerations

Among the many reasons to allow the clergy class to die away is this situation:  of necessity, clergyfolk consider Sunday a work day, all the while attempting to be seen as normal members of the church, to an extent.  This dual reality sets up a conflict between de facto classes of Christians.  (Of course there should not be classes of Christians, but in actual practice, these often exist.)

We try to treat preachers/ministers/pastors normally, like other believers, but it’s not always possible.  We try to respect that their Saturdays are often given to preparations for Sundays—while some of us golf, grill, do yard work, go shopping, or to the park.  And we try to respect that many of them take Monday off while we begin the work week.  The weekly calendars simply don’t coincide—which wouldn’t be a big problem, except for the fact that preachers/ministers/pastors depend, to some extent, on the roles others (read:  volunteers, “laity”) play in the workings of a church, and the rhythm of the week for the rest of us is different.

Clergyfolk need the rest of us, because of their official roles, to work according to their schedules.  There is some pressure—because of the sense of authority inherent in positional leadership (which, again, should not exist but does)—to adjust our schedules to fit theirs.

Expendable?

What things might be considered expendable in a church assembly?  A large number, really.  Let me start a list:

  • pews or chairs
  • microphones, amplifiers, and speakers
  • different leaders to perform the various functions
  • any official leaders at all (I see leadership as not-so-expendable, but in the ideal world, even it is not as crucial as today’s business world tends to make us think it is)
  • a talk or a reading before communion
  • scripture readings
  • songs
  • sermon

Please add to the list!  C’mon.  This’ll be fun….

The “Word,” as hijacked by preachers (2)

(continued from yesterday)

The responsibility to distinguish between man’s word and God’s belongs to the “laity” (to ascribe a Biblical root word to a non-Biblical concept which is nonetheless pretty much universally understood).

Primarily, the Word (logos) is Jesus the Christ.  He is the One through Whom God has ultimately spoken. (Full-stop.)

All the time-tested, timeless witness of scripture points to Jesus.  In contrast, the kerygma, more or less a preached message about Him or something related to Him, is secondary.  Low-church preachers in my observation have periodically exploited the phrase “word of God” to their own ends.  At worst, these preachers can make what is at best a kerygma out to have the import and status of the logos.

High-church preachers may have one up on non-liturgists here, because the concept of the word that the former espouse—publicly, at least—seems loftier, more meaningful.  I do resist the idea that every recitation of scripture is to be heard as “the word of the Lord” (this phrase enjoins upon congregations the automaton’s response “thanks be to God”) simply because it may be located by chapter and verse.¹  The so-called “word of the Lord” may just be the word of the day—according to someone’s legacy calendar or page-flipping choice—or the word of the man, not necessarily of God or even of the theopneustos (God-breathed) words of writers indwelt by God.  Discerning disciples may want more than the humanly chosen verse or verses as their “word of the Lord” nourishment.

God’s word is directed and intentional, isn’t it?  It communicates real truths, and speaks to bona fide issues and real needs of humanity, doesn’t it?  A basic recitation/reading in the congregation may not speak to anything in particular, and may evidence more of a perfunctory M.O., i.e., paying lipservice to scripture, as opposed to placing it in the context of God communicating to humankind through scripture.  The word of the Lord is just that—communication from God—not to be confused with some sacramental touchstone that might make some of us feel we’ve participated in the required activities, and therein have done the will of the Lord.

Laititians², unite in the continuing reformatory efforts of the Kingdom of God.  Insist that the word of the Lord is for the people—to be read, heard, and understood by the people.  Despite the reality that paid people have more study and thought time during the week than most non-paid ministers have, over-control of public use of scripture by the “clergy” has a stultifying effect on the people of the Kingdom.

Scripture is holy in the sense of its being separate for purposes intended by God, but scripture is functional and subservient in that it exists to point to an utterly holy (= other/transcendent/absolutely pure) God and His kingdom purposes.

Above all, remember that the consummation of the message of Deity is “spoken” in and through Jesus the Christ.

—————-

¹ This is a rather bold assertion—that simply because it’s in the canonical book of, say, Jeremiah doesn’t guarantee that it’s a message God intends for Brian Casey on October 22.  I sense another question begged, as well:  is it “the word of the Lord” simply because I flip pages randomly in my Bible in my “devotions” time and feel in my heart that this was the verse I was meant to read for today?

² Here, I mean to be semi-humorously emphasizing the individual responsibility of non-clergy-types instead of using the common “laity,” which to me implies a collective mass of second-class lumps.

The “Word,” as hijacked by preachers (1)

If a preacher yells that what he is saying is the Word of God, his credibility may in that instant seem bolstered.

If a preacher is told to “preach the Word” (capital “W”), his vocational raison d’etre takes wings for apparently lofty flight.

If we people in the pews assume that “the Word of God,” in toto, is equivalent to what we hear from the microphone/pulpit, we are to be pitied.

(to be continued)