It’s not that it’s wrong . . .

. . . it’s just out of balance.

Here is a quote out of a recent Instrumentalist magazine — from an interview with a successful, well-reputed high school band director in Arizona.

We will sometimes record video of students from the symphonic band demonstrating marching techniques and put it on YouTube for me to show to the concert band in the next class period.

I had to read that twice to make sure I got it right — beyond the ostensible intent to tell how the director uses technology,

To elucidate, for the majority of my readers who do not work in academic music vocations . . . what the quotation shows is that a highly touted high school band director is in the habit of using indoor band rehearsal time for outdoor marching band.  I have also found this phenomenon in Texas:  in the fall, jazz band class time is for marching band; concert band class time is for marching band, and even mariachi band class time (it exists!) is probably used sometimes for outdoor marching band activities, too.  This practice appears to be common, to the point that no one even feels the need to make excuses for it.  For these marching band-heavy schools, it’s about “pride” — but more, about preparation for marching band competitions.

mband

When I was learning about how things are done around here, I had the feeling that people were almost feeling sorry for me in my ignorance of the needs of the marching band machine.

The problem is not that marching band exists.  The problem is that it’s out of balance.  A two-week band camp plus three after-school rehearsals a week plus weekends ought to be plenty.  But the competition aspect puts heavy demands on schools, bands, and directors, and it gets out of balance.  The cart drives the horse.  (Or, in one case I knew about years ago, the lug nuts on the wheels drove the cart and the horse:  percussion staff drove the marching percussion which drove the marching band which drove the instrumental music program.)

Other situations may have elements out of balance, too.  Take church assemblies, for instance.  Typically, there might be three to six songs, a token prayer or two, and a 25- to 35-minute sermon.  A few churches add communion and maybe a brief, excerpted scripture reading.  Most have some announcements.  I suggest that some of this is out of balance.

Like the outdoor band that commandeers indoor band time for its supposedly more pressing needs, preachers have for centuries been in the habit of taking too much corporate time for the supposedly more important needs of the sermon.  Moreover, I would suggest that even prayer has overshadowed other vehicles of communion with God.  Specifically, I assert that these should be allowed more time in most church assemblies:

  1. Worship in song — that is, when the singing truly is marked by words of worship
  2. The reading and hearing of extended sections of scripture

Marching band is important, but it is best when it is manifested in proper balance.  Sermons and prayers and announcements are important — and obviously are not wrong — but they, too, are best when experienced in proper balance.

preacher

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Eulogizings and ponderings

“Isn’t it amazing how those songs went right along with the sermon?  And the song leader and preacher didn’t even talk beforehand.”

I’m not normally one to get too excited about such apparent confluences of thought.  If I’ve heard the above line 100 times, probably 85 of the instances could be discounted, because, after all, nearly everything in a Christian assembly can be related to love or faith or Jesus.  The actual dovetailing doesn’t end up being all that miraculous most of the time.

Aside:  it’s no sin for worship/song leaders and preachers not to communicate beforehand.  A sermon, if used, can obviously stand on its own; any songs, readings, prayers, and comments need not jibe with the sermon or even with each other.  Worship and edification may stand on their own, without needing to be tied to a message or lesson.

Anyway, after all that preface! …

  1. Recently, I came across a brief Christian Chronicle article that mentioned black¹ evangelist Marshall Keeble’s²  having eulogized a parrot, on request, before laying it to rest for his great-granddaughter.
  2. Not one hour before, I had read a forwarded e-mail with sweet, gentle thoughts about dogs as friends and gifts of God.  
  3. The above two occurrences reminded me that my granddaddy had been prayerfully thankful, following the death of the family’s long-loved collie Frisky, for “the comfort of our animal friends.”  

So, while not attributing the confluence of the dog e-mail, the article about Keeble and the parrot, and the recollection of my granddaddy to the Spirit of God, I thought all this was worth mentioning here.  The fact that I had all three thoughts (some might call them “promptings”) in a brief span might mean nothing to you, but it was quasi-noteworthy my thought-world.  Surely both Keeble and my grandfather were both men of influence, men of inspiration, and men who were willing to recognize many of God’s gifts, including animals.

I have eulogized my grandfather before, and probably will again.  I have never written a word, to my recollection, about Marshall Keeble, but have heard about him often.  He predated my grandfather by a generation but lived 90 years.  My parents once heard Keeble speak.  He was a man of note.  keeble

Called an “Uncle Tom” by some of his black contemporaries because of his willingness to play into white conventions, he is said to have had an infectious, irresistible style of preaching.  Not unexpectedly, he was also conservative in terms of issues and emphases, and was given to relatively narrow, elementary hermeneutics in his scruples and sermons.  Keeble’s preaching resulted in the immersion of thousands — some estimates run as high as 40,000 of these initiating steps in the Christian walk.  To have been Marshall Keeble, especially in his prime in the first half of the 20th century — was to make observable, eternally significant history.

To have been Andy T. or Kathryn Ritchie was not as visible in terms of numbers, but they also made significant history in their Kingdom work, moving on to the “land of the eternally living” in the 1980s.  The likes of Ken Neller, Neva White, Kyle Degge, Judy Barker, and Jeannette Baggett have died within the last year and are also worthy of note in Kingdom service — sometimes in the simplest of gestures, and in other ways touching scores of souls at a time.

Recently I visited a cemetery and thought about what has gone before me.  So many have done so much for the Lord.  While I’m not supportive of every word or opinion voiced by some of those named above, my support clearly isn’t the crux:  God can use a lot of variety in His service.  And who really knows how much has been done in the spirit-realm that was never observed physically?

In remembering the gifts and devotion of those who have worked devotedly for the causes of the Kingdom of God in the past, we may be spurred in the now.

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¹ I use the adjective “black” for several reasons:  a) it is more common, and therefore less jarring than the more apt “brown,” b) it is less historically charged than “colored,” c) it is much less awkward than “person of color,” and d) I have no knowledge of whether this man, or even his parents or grandparents, were actually “African-American.”  In fact, I just listened to a sermon archive and heard Keeble proclaim that he wasn’t from Africa.  Neither do I find it necessary to proclaim that I am an Irish-Swiss-English-Welsh-Scottish-German-American.  I guess “mutt” would do just fine for me.

² http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshall_Keeble

Twelve for 2012 (1)

Caveat lector:  Despite my deep-and-wide-spreading neo-protestant roots, I don’t want to be a tree made of hard wood that never sways with the refreshing breezes of God’s Spirit.

I do intentionally strike a posture of challenge toward any nominally Christian element that seems not to emanate from scripture.  Plus, I’m relatively comfortable with speaking sincerely, earnestly, even prophetically (although NOT miraculously so! – I claim no special revelation, only attentiveness to the witness of God’s inspired spokesmen of old) for God and for pure Christianity.

The M.O. of quasi-prophetic, interrogatory speech necessarily counters long-practiced norms, and a good many beliefs tenaciously held by the masses.  [To friends and acquaintances who tolerate and/or love me anyway most of the time:  is this introductory elaboration helping to illuminate?]  I make no apology for speaking against cults, various human hierarchies, and merely tradition-based denominational tenets, but if I ever seem to be battling the individual’s sincere, independent pursuit of Almighty God and His kingdom, I stand ready to be corrected.

Several months ago, I was led to think anew about the tone of some of my blogposts—thus the verbal groundwork laid above.  I had actually started this piece before the beginning of 2012 but was unsure about it.  I’m still unsure about the thrust of a few items.  Although some question remains about certain extents, my reluctance stems more from insecurity over the reception of what I’ll be saying.

We’re now almost finished with 2012.  Although originally planned for 1/1/12, this post is now scheduled to be broadcast at 12:12 on 12/12/12.  Nice number, huh?  The ramifications of some of the items below are surely broad, and I don’t present them, deluded, as “gospel.”  I’m fully aware of the audacity of some of them.  In order to frame them clearly as humanly fallible, I’ll now present these items in half-twelve lists of six, the “number of man.”

I would like to present these somewhat incendiary thoughts with a special invitation for feedback.  Responses I receive may be used in, or as, follow-up posts, so if you write privately, please confirm whether you want to remain anonymous if quoted.  Perhaps we can have some valuable discussions—whether openly on the blog or on the backchannels.

Here, then, are the first six things I would do in, to, and for the earthly, western church of the 21st century, if I had the ability.

If I could, I would

  1. instantiate exegetical Bible study methods into every Christian church
  2. morph sermons, with their “points” and jokes and poems, into studies with scriptural exegesis at their core
  3. abolish the “pastor/minister” role altogether — this role (not to mention its attendant hierarchies) is an unknown entity in New Testament writings, and although many of these individuals clearly do good in our day, the harm inherent in the position and its ramifications is not insignificant; perpetuation of the institution is contra-indicated, although many of the persons currently in such positions could serve well in other roles
  4. inculcate the principle of the Bible as “the only rule for faith and practice” — and this would necessitate a) ridding ourselves of superimposed creeds and “faith statements,” and b) abandoning residual loyalties to articulate, more or less charismatic non-specially-inspired personages, whether past or present
  5. eradicate all traces of denominational pride and loyalty (if not all evidence of denominations, period)
  6. sell most of the church buildings in the country, leaving only the ones used several days a week for Kingdom business and neighborhood service

To be continued . . . my next post will list the remaining six items. . . .

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 . . .

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….

Preachers and preaching

There once was an exegete named Ray
Who studied and planned along the way.
He praught and he taught;
Church folks kicked him a lot.
Now he programs, and dreams all the day....

The need for preaching, as it were, is not as great, in my estimation, as 98% of the Christian world apparently thinks it is. In making this rather bold, unpopular statement, I am speaking of the institution known as the sermon or homily; the need for Biblical teaching of some sort is not in dispute. We all need to be taught by someone who knows something that we have not yet discovered in God’s will. The questions are whether this teaching should be offered by someone a) paid, and/or b) in a full-time staff position, and/or c) clergified.

In thinking back over the years of sitting through sermons, I don’t find many preachers I would want to hear from regularly — for more than couple months of Sundays, anyway. The animal we call the “sermon” is a species of our own creation, and, in my view, it needs a smaller cage, or at least a habitat that separates it from the weekly church experience.

Sermons invite criticism. Too much introduction? Too much Bible-quoting? Not enough scripture reference? Stringing together Bible verses like popcorn on a thread without regard for context? PA system gone bad? Too distant? Too many jokes? (Any jokes at all?) Too long? Too exegetical? Too personal/too much opinion? Too much Greek? No reference at all to anything besides the NIV? All-KJV? Topics and texts not related to everyday life? Topics and texts too populist, without attention to God’s eternity? Too much ear-tickling? Too much spiritual-directorish, “I challenge you to …” language from the ivory tower?

All these questions, and others, are naturally raised when one person’s words take such a large percentage of a church’s time. It’s not that it’s a good thing, necessarily, that a congregation is critical of the preaching it hears; it’s just a natural outgrowth of the fact that one person stands in front of the church for 25-30 or more minutes every time the church meets. Do we take note of the fact that one person gets 1/3 to 1/2 of the congregational meeting time?

If the conception of ordination (or hierarchy) is such that the man is revered for having been supposedly, directly selected by God Himself, things look different. If one sees the preacher as especially, divinely inspired or even infallible, well, I guess it’s not a problem that the people hear so much from him. (There’s a bigger problem then!)

Preachers also invite criticism. Some wear bad suits, or maybe they’re too fat or too short. Others have nasal or hoarse or high-pitched voices that are unpleasant to listen to. Some preachers come across as stereotypical used car salesmen, hawking church programs and God.  Admittedly, some are intermittently quite good at preaching — saying worthwhile, well-founded things in an effective manner. Others are simply inept and have somehow found their way into full-time church salaries.

. . .

One of my best friends (about whom the opening limerick was written) is a well-trained, gifted exegete. I hope he doesn’t read this, because, although he would understand and take the opening in the supportive spirit in which it was intended, it might bring fresh pain to him. In church work, he never got a fair shake, because, quite frankly, churches didn’t want much of what he had to offer. That is to the discredit of the churches, by the way:  Ray had far more substance to offer than most preachers.

The preacher/sermon chapter of Ray’s life (not his real name) gives me the most pause.  Why is he programming for a living now instead of feeding hungry Christians and seekers?  To his great credit, he is constantly dreaming of, and working out, new ways to reach people with God’s message.  But the sermon institution couldn’t contain him.  He was too much for it.

Considering all of us in the pews now … do we like jokes and stories and topical meanderings more than exegesis? Are we more comfortable with entertainment or Christian syrup or even church political correctness than with biblical teaching?

God, is there anything You would like to do with preaching in our decade?