One of our family’s current TV show favorites is “Chopped” in which top chefs compete to make the best meal for a panel of judges. Those whose dishes are not up to par are “chopped” or eliminated from the competition. I thought maybe some kind of similar competition for preachers would be fun – something along the lines of the old Gong Show format. I’m not sure what to call it though – preachers out of favor in the old days would be stoned, beheaded, jailed, exiled, or dismissed but none of those sound good for a show name.
A bigger problem is what criteria for judging would be used? On “Chopped” the criteria are creativity, presentation and technique. No such criteria are agreed upon for preaching – though more & more its seems hair, dress, laughter and “hipness” seem what grabs popular attention. In contrast, John the Baptist was the first wild man with a perpetual bad hair day, Jonah preached covered in whale vomit, and the apostle Paul was dismissed as unsightly & boring. Probably no telegenic smiles in that bunch!
Charles Spurgeon in his “Lectures to My Students” reviews some of the pitfalls of preaching styles and mannerisms oh his own day. While my meager observations don’t come near his classic work, here are a few styles & pitfall I’ve noticed:
“The Hobby Horse Rider” is the preacher that has one or two favorite subjects and no matter the text or the season returns to them again & again. Sadly, these are usually pet peeves such as politics, the End Times, moral issues or what ever is the obsession of the month. Is it “Communion Sunday”? Gog & Magog dominate the message. Christmas? The evils of Federal Bureaucracy dominates. Easter Morning? A refresher course in dispensational theology is offered up. The gospel of the cross and the victory of the resurrection is buried beneath what ever irks the preacher.
“The Machine Gun Preacher” – This is the preacher that unloads at full volume, full speed and full load. He takes no hostages and hardly a breath as well. Its hard to follow what’s been said because the delivery is overwhelming. This specimen is rare but still around – if you encounter him – duck!
“The Marshmellow Preacher” – A marshmallow is sugar plus air & this preacher’s message is about the same. Stories, jokes and a nice feel good moral make up the bulk with the emphasis on “make ’em laugh” or “make ’em cry.” Just like a marshmallow provides no nutritional value, so the message of the marshmallow preacher is hard to remember 5 minutes after consumed.
Preaching has always been considered foolishness (1 Cor. 1:21). Its futility, obsolescence & eventual demise has been repeatedly pronounced from generation to generation in favor of the techno-gadget innovation of the moment. Yet, God chooses the foolishness of preaching and preachers to deliver the good news of his saving power.
How is it possible to judge success the success of preaching or a preacher? What criteria would be used? Popularity? Applause? Crowds? The prophets of old were told that their message would be ignored & rejected by listeners with deaf ears, blind eyes and hard hearts. It is a work of grace and the Holy Spirit to change the blind, deaf and hardened to hear and believe God’s truth. God could have chosen so many other ways to get his point across – but he didn’t. God chose the foolishness of preaching to deliver the saving message of the cross. While a gong show for preachers might be entertaining, it would miss the point. Its not about the messenger – its about the message, Jesus, the glory and revelation of God’s saving power.
“The preacher of the gospel is like the sower. He does not make his seed; it is given him by his divine Master…He has to leave the seed in the care of the Lord who gave it to him, for he is not responsible for the harvest, he is only accountable for the care and industry with which he does his work…Our duty is not measured by the character of our hearers, but by the command of our God.”
For the last 2 years I have been a “bi-vocational” pastor – I work at least 40 hours a week as a substance abuse counselor and pastor a church “part-time.” I have found it rewarding and challenging but it has required me to think about the assumptions, myths and distortions about what constitutes pastoring and ministry.
I began working part time initially because our family needed more income that our small church could not provide. Our family home schools and my wife and I have felt that since that is our priority we have tried to have only one of us employed outside the home. I also needed a different challenge. I have always chaffed at traditional limitations, thinking & expectations in regard to pastoring, the church and ministry when they are limited to Sunday morning building oriented activities or inward focused, pleasing member demands. I’ve seen too much of what God is able to do to limit his power or reduce the Gospel to that.
I was able to dust off some counseling skills and found that I enjoyed my new job and was getting good feedback from my employer, eventually leading to full time employment & certification. I understand a lot better how it feels after working all day and then to try to find the energy for a board meeting. I also have learned a lot about people from all walks of life who have wreaked havoc with their lives from addiction but who would never think about walking into a church building and talk with “the Pastor.” I have listened to the stories of women & women who have been assaulted as well as men and women who have done the assaulting and served time for it; who have stolen medications and money from their family for a fix, who have neglected or abandoned children for another high. I work with parole & probation officers, child protective services and court officials. You could say I ran into life in the raw and not the Sunday morning “put on a happy face to go to church” variety.
I have also seen God work in people’s lives – Holy Spirit directed words of comfort, wisdom and encouragement, the forming of real community as burdens and tears and “breakthroughs” are shared, and the birth of hope – the realization that there is another way to live and a future that is more than a repeat of the past.
However, I as a result of my new official ecclesiastical status, I have run across a number of myths, assumptions and distortions. The first is that a bi- vocational pastor is not a “real” pastor or successful – real and successful defined as compensated fully or employed full time by a congregation. I wanted to go to a retreat years ago and applied for financial assistance but was told by the ministry in charge that I was not eligible for the aid since I worked another job. I guess the Apostle Paul wouldn’t have qualified either since he made tents to support himself!
I have also run into “church shoppers”who look down their nose at a congregation with a bi-vocational pastor. The underlying assumption may be that a real or successful congregation is one that can afford the salary and benefits required for a full time employee who will then take care of member’s needs. However, most pastors, if full time, survive if married, by their spouse working. Despite the claim of “family friendly,” (and unless your Steven Furtick) many congregations provide a low level income that requires extra income to survive and qualifies for food stamps.
Another distortion that usually tags along with the assumption that successful = full time is that the pastor is the only real minister since they are “the professional.” Besides the mistaken belief that a degree alone makes one a capable and godly leader, this undercuts developing the spiritual gifts and ministry of other members of the local body. It prevents the development of quality spiritual leaders whether deacons or elders. It also usually leads to leadership boards that do not lead and do not serve but manage and control. It often joins with the distortion that “real” ministry occurs only on the church property or during Sunday morning or office hours or other stated times of gathering on church real estate. The truth is that real ministry occurs where ever Spirit filled, Christ loving believers go. A truly functioning body requires that all its members exercise their God ordained function – a wonderful opportunity to develop a multi-gifted eldership that can expand and diversify the work and service of a congregation.
There are real benefits for the bi-vocational pastor and the congregation they work with. These include understanding the pressures and demands of people and families instead of becoming myopic about what defines ministry and mission; freedom from control and manipulation when the big givers try to use their financial clout to stop change or control true leadership; freeing up money spent on high cost benefits such as health insurance & the opportunity to influence the community to a higher level by being “salt” in everyday life.
There are also challenges – the most obvious is time. I have less time to study and write. I have to manage my minutes. I have less time to waste. As has been pointed out by numerous spiritual giants of yesteryear, pastoral ministry can provide a temptation for sloth. It is all too easy to confuse and justify “busyness” and a full calendar with genuine spiritual progress. I have to delegate and share the load of caring for people instead of trying to indulge my own need to be needed. I have to challenge my own assumption that “its all up to me” or that ministry doesn’t happen unless I show up. In other words the challenges of being bi-vocational are tough on my own sinful self but good for my sanctification & I pray ultimately good for the mission of the church.
Will I continue serving this way? Only God knows. Some believe”bi-vocational” ministry will become the norm for the future in our post-Christendom age. Its not for everyone. I see fruit in what I am doing. I don’t see think its realistic that society or the church will return to how it used to be 40 or 50 years ago. The missional status of the church is clearer than ever. What is needed is an apostolic spirit to match – and that requires thinking beyond how how pastoral or congregational ministry and success has been defined – by employee status.
My first official dance lesson was a rite of passage as well as part of 1970’s grade school tradition. It was exciting as well as scary – the female of the species seemed to have lost their “cooties” and taken on a strange alluring, magnetic attraction. Our teachers acting as chaperons kept a close eye on the proximity of our hormone laden bodies that seemed to have the instability of nitroglycerin. The awkwardness of physical contact eased after repeated attempts to get in step with the instructions of the teacher & the rhythm of the music, eventually, 2 pairs of adolescent feet found an uneasy synchronized pattern. Missteps and falling out of step were often but given the simplicity of the Foxtrot getting back in step was easy along with an awkward smile. After time, the fox trot became routine, the watchfulness of the chaperons relaxed, and as music changed keeping in step gave way to circulating in proximate orbits of movement.
Keeping in step was easy for the fox trot but it has rarely been so for me in regards to anything else. Bandwagons have had little appeal. I tended to be the one who in the midst of a wave of group think raised his hand and asked “but what about…?” which is usually as popular as a skunk at a picnic. Having tried to be an institutional, denominational pastor for over 20 years still hasn’t changed me that much. Movements, revolutions and reformations run out of steam, money or hype. As it seems to have turned out most of us were not history makers or nations changers. Having tried to pastor for over 20 years still hasn’t changed me that much. I still let ecclesiastical bandwagons pass me by – these days they look all too familiar – recycled with a fresh coat of paint that doesn’t look like it will hold out under the bright sunlight or a heavy rain. I’ve seen this part of the parade before and it usually leads to the same end – distracting detours, deceptive dead ends and doctrinal disasters.
As far as I can tell, Jesus was never concerned about dancing to the tune of his generation. When it comes to faith, it’s easy to get side tracked. Peyton Jones, in his book “Church Zero” calls the mistaken priorities of the church as a dance with 5 easy steps:
1) Get more people
2) More people = more money
3) More money = more toys
4) More toys = More ways to get more people
5) Get more people (rinse & repeat)
That’s like replacing an entirely different dance with different steps – you end up a tangle of feet or dancing alone. However, there are a few things I recall from my early dancing days that correspond with which tune church dances to today and the missteps that are possible:
1) It’s not about the building – Dance lessons were not in a mirror lined studio with polished wood floors but in the school lunch room, with the tables pushed to the side and the aroma of that day’s lunch of tater tots and mystery meat lingering in the air. So much for ambience and atmosphere! But it didn’t matter. We didn’t need a lot of techno-wizardry or designer dazzle. That wasn’t what we were there for.
2) It’s not about the music – I remember some of the bands such as “Bread, “The Guess Who” and “America” and even some of the song titles that were spun on the 45 rpm record player. We listened to the same tunes on the radio at home. That’s not what we were there for.
3) It’s not about getting more feet in the door or on the floor – We weren’t keeping count. We were on the look out for that special someone to dance with and more bodies just got in the way.
What were we there for? For the encounter – to be with the other -even if for a few moments – even a choreographed one – with the person of our desire. Most young men in their early teens wouldn’t be caught dead expressing an interest in dance for dance sake. But this was different. We were willing to be stretched out of our usual comfort zone, to even look like clumsy fools simply for an encounter with that special other.
A dance has basic steps that form the pattern for movement. Faith does as well. Faith is more than knowing certain facts or performing certain actions. First and foremost faith is an encounter with the Triune God. Being a disciple of Jesus means first and foremost not following principles but a person. Preachers of another age used the term “experiential” or “experimental” because faith involves an interaction with each member of the Trinity. Patristic theology uses the Greek term “periochoresis” (to dance around) to describe the interrelations and interactions of the persons of the Trinity. Peter Leithart points out that the word’s verbal form, besides providing the root for the English word “choreographed” was also used as a metaphor of how the members of the Godhead dance around and with one another, what St. Maximus called the “eternal movement of love.”
Through the sacrifice of the Son and the power of the Holy Spirit, the Father has made it possible for us to join in their relationship in a way that is beyond metaphor – to join in the divine fellowship. In John 17:21-13, Jesus prayed for his disciples that “all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity.” This is a unity in which the uniqueness of persons is not absorbed or erased but allows them to interact with one another in genuine communion or “koinonia” and with one another. A holy, circling dance is a fitting image.
I know for some that dance is not going to be a popular or appealing picture especially if you hold to the old-time adage “the praying knee can’t belong to a dancing leg” (of course thankfully, Miriam & King David did not know that!). Other metaphors of the spiritual life that focus on warfare or conflict or battle are far more appealing especially to the male of the species especially when fueled by images of “Brave Heart,” Gladiator” or those who think the church’s confession of faith should sound like “THIS IS SPARTA!”
God’s not asking us to stretch our awkward frames into pink tutus but we are commanded to “keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5: 16) which speaks of following the lead of the 3rd member of the Trinity. If I as a pastor or leader or believer am trying to dance to the tune of my or another generation or the demands of institutional priorities or the expectations of the current cultural despisers of the faith then I am not following the right steps. I will be moving to a foreign tune that will be out of step with the Holy Spirit.
The Triune God has made it possible for us to join in his eternal movement of love. It also means we join with other believers as part of the divine choreography as we encounter the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That’s worth staying in step with.
“I believe in the doctrine of election, because I am quite certain that, if God had not chosen me, I should never have chosen him; and I am sure he chose me before I was born, or else he never would have chosen me afterwards; and he must have elected me for reasons unknown to me, for I never could find any reason in myself why he should have looked upon me with special love.”
“Without the gospel
everything is useless and vain;
without the gospel
we are not Christians;
without the gospel
all riches is poverty,
all wisdom, folly before God;
strength is weakness, and
all the justice of man is under the condemnation of God.
But by the knowledge of the gospel we are made
children of God,
brothers of Jesus Christ,
fellow townsmen with the saints,
citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven,
heirs of God with Jesus Christ,
the poor are made rich,
the weak strong,
the fools wise,
the sinners justified,
the desolate comforted,
the doubting sure, and
The gospel is the Word of life.”
(From John Calvin’s preface to Pierre-Robert Olivétan’s 1535 translation of the Bible.)
“Of all hypocrites, grant that I may not be an evangelical hypocrite,
who sins more safely because grace abounds,
who tells his lusts that Christ’s blood cleanseth them,
who reasons that God cannot cast him into hell, for he is saved,
who loves evangelical preaching, churches, Christians (conferences?),
but lives unholily.”
The hue & cry about the “war on Christmas” is in the news. However, Christmas was not always as popular as some believe. Under the influence of Puritan preaching and clout it was banned by the English Parliament in 1647. It was “banned in Boston” due to the same influence in its Colonial Congregational version until 1856. So while currently the villains are supposedly a nefarious cabal of multiculturalists even Christians have had “bah humbug” moments! The grievances that are listed because the U.S. is no longer a country with a monolithic unofficial civic religion don’t really add up to a significant attack upon the Christian faith. Consider the following:
On a scale of 0 to 100 how important is the public display of a tree (whether called Holiday or Christmas) to the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ? Zero
On a scale of 0 to 100 how important is being greeted with “Merry Christmas” vs. “Happy Holidays” at the local store to the discipling of every nation? Zippo
On a scale of 0 to 100 how important is the production of special programs (whether called Christmas or Holiday) to the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in the people of God? Nada
The so-called “war on Christmas” may be good for talk show ratings and for fund raising for reactionary political agendas but is “much ado about nothing” as far as God’s work in the nations. The Son of God never said his disciples would be known by their public nativity scenes or decorating a pine tree. He said they would be known by their love, demonstrated in concrete actions that will benefit others. Love is different from compiling a list of grievances because one’s own cherished traditions no longer exclusively dominate popular culture. The Gospel – the glad tidings of great joy – is more than equal share of religious advertising space. If as much energy & fervor was expended in defending the gospel by the simple preaching, teaching, worship and service of the gathered church as is wasted in enlisting evangelical market share for a war about nothing, the purpose of Christ’s incarnation might be clearer to a world in spiritual darkness.
There – my Scrooge moment is over.
Our new praise band tuning up for their big debut as we do our best to remain trendy & competitive in the crowded religious franchise market!
Election Day is near at hand. We have endured the debates, the mud-slinging, the distortion and demonization of positions and opponents and the warnings of apocalyptic terror to come after. Soon it will be time to make one’s choice. To choose leaders by voting is a cherished constitutional right. To choose in matters even less significant than an election is an un-questioned assumption of consumer culture (including Christian) & woe to the one who would dare interfere! Consider a few of the multitude of choices presented to us every day: regular, unleaded or ethanol, smoking or non-smoking, rare-medium or well-done, latte “venti” or “grande”, Mac or Windows, traditional worship or contemporary music, KJV, NIV, ESV or Message Bible? Yet for all our choices and all the drama of a national election there is a greater & more significant election that lasts far longer than 2 or 4 years. The Bible is full of examples of God making choices – of people, places, nations, of priests, kings, disciples and apostles. Yet to discuss God’s choices (or election) is considered by many strange, antiquated, divisive or dangerous. However, consider the following:
“For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” Deut. 7:6-8
“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.” John 15:16
“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” 1 Cor. 1:26-31
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.” Eph 1:3-6
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” 1 Peter 2:9-10
Whatever theological stripe or brand you consider yourself, God’s loving, gracious election or choosing of a people for himself may not be ignored without disregarding his word. So also our own choices in response to what God has done present each of us with a choice:
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” Deut. 30:19-20
“And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” Joshua 24:15
“Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.” 2 Peter 1:10
The Presidential election theatrics are almost over. God’s work of election is eternal. Consumer choice is based on the whims and egotism of the self that change with the passing of fads and time. God’s election is rooted in his eternal love and grace and results in our thanks, praise and glorifying of his faithfulness. Whether Tuesday’s election results make you mad, sad or glad, God’s election is the eternal foundation of the confidence, hope and joy of those who trust in Jesus Christ.