The hot button discussion in American Evangelicalism this week is the recently released “Nashville Statement”. This is an attempt by some Reformed Evangelicals to clarify their views on sexuality; the statement has raised a fair amount of agreement and a fair amount of disagreement. Given the theological diversity of my friends, some have loved it and others have found it terrible. You can see the diversity of public opinion within “15 Reactions For And Against the Nashville Statement.” In my opinion, the following posts have been tremendously helpful in thinking about #NashvilleStatement: [Read more…]
Over the years I’ve been approached by a few people who wanted to either use the gifts they believed they had or be trained and equipped to minister through speaking (e.g., preaching, teaching, training, etc.). In simple terms, they wanted opportunities to speak from the stage during larger worship gatherings. These people really believed that they had something to offer the church (and they probably did) and they wanted to “use their gifts.” Some of these people even guaranteed the effectiveness of ministry!
But I basically told each of them this: “Ummmmm, no thanks.”
Besides being really turned off by anyone who can guarantee certain aspects of their “ministry,” something else caused me to put things on hold. Each of these people said something like the following:
“I’m totally willing to teach the Bible but I don’t want to go to any of the fun events with people”
“I’m not interested in meeting with people who have questions about what I talk about.”
“Don’t count on me attending that event because there will be people there who drink beer and smoke cigarettes.”
These three responses, in my opinion, disqualify people from serving in influential leadership roles because they undermine the model of holistic ministry that Jesus demonstrated.
“I don’t do fun events.”
People don’t seem to understand that it’s in the context of relationships and spending time together that one’s influence grows. If you really want to be effective in ministry situations, you need to spend time with people. You need to eat dinner with them. You need to go bowling with them. You need to do the things that you assume aren’t spiritual because they actually are. Spiritual things happen around the table (cf. John 12:1-8 occurs around a dinner table).
So while you sit at home being all “holy” and “spiritual,” isolated from engaging human beings, effective missional disciples spend time with people just like Jesus did.
“No questions, please.”
If you believe you are “called” to speak to churches, please be humble enough to realize that your ideas in your sermons may provoke questions… and that’s a good thing. Yeah, people might disagree with you and want you to explain more about why you believe what you said or why you gave the advice that you did, but it’s actually a continuation of the ministry opportunity!
I’ve found that some of the most helpful “ministry” in relation to my preaching has been at a coffee shop! And I’ve come to find that most of the time that people only want to preach from a platform and aren’t willing to answer questions is because they primarily want to vent… which is totally unhelpful. Sure, they might call it “prophetic,” but the underlying arrogance (and ignorance) really damages any credibility you have.
“Beer and cigarettes!”
I get it. You are convinced that drinking a beer is a bad witness. I totally disagree (and have blogged about that here), but it really doesn’t matter. You don’t need to drink beer to be around people who do. Jesus had no problem hanging out with sinners, right? In fact, he hung out with them so much that their bad reputations rubbed off on his reputation and people actually thought that Jesus was a drunk:
“The Son of Man, on the other hand, feasts and drinks, and you say, ‘He’s a glutton and a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and other sinners!'” (Luke 7:34 NLT)
I’ve found time and time again that people actually are disarmed by my willingness to spend time with them in their space (i.e., not the church building). I’ve found that I have opportunities to speak into their life because they know that I’m not hiding behind a sense of self-righteousness or legalism.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting everyone needs to drink beer or start smoking cigarettes to be “relevant.” I’m saying that you should be okay with being around people who do. You can’t influence them for the kingdom if you aren’t in their lives and they in yours!
What do you think?
Preaching is the art of provoking hearts and minds toward Jesus and his kingdom. I believe it’s an art because I’m convinced it’s similar to painting or composing music. You can take a class on painting and learn the basic mechanics of brush strokes, but that’s way different than being a Claude Monet. You can also learn how to play piano notes and even chord progressions, but that’s a far cry from being Ludwig van Beethoven.
I think the lines blur a bit between preaching and teaching, as the sermonic structure of communication tends to vary between those in church leadership who participate in congregational speaking. Most of my favorite preachers tend to transition, quite smoothly I might add, between what I’d consider preaching and what seems to fall into the teaching category.
Biblical Foundations for Preaching
One simply needs to read the Old Testament to encounter some of the great preaching of the Bible. The Prophets of old often proclaimed to the people of Israel (and the nations) the truths of God in startling fashion. Jesus himself was a great communicator and genius at using stories (parables) to provoke the hearts and minds of his listeners. Throughout the Book of Acts, the Apostles and other disciples (e.g., Stephen and Phillip) were preachers (for great survey’s of the biblical foundations for preaching, I highly recommend Inspired Preaching: A Survey of Preaching Found in the New Testament and Preaching: A Biblical Theology).
As far as what we read and observe in Scripture, preaching appears to be extremely important within the life of the Church for at least two reasons:
- Preaching is a means by which people hear the gospel, the story of God, the teachings and works of Christ, and the invitation to come to King Jesus and his kingdom.
- Preaching is a powerful way to encourage and challenge (not the only way).
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said:
“What is the chief end of preaching? I like to think it is this: It is to give men and women a sense of God and His presence.”
So preaching is a means by which God speaks through women and men about Jesus and the stories of God to both win them and to encourage them. Preaching can be used by God to communicate his presence and his power and point people to Jesus.
Five Goals of Preaching
When I am studying, collecting ideas, mind-mapping thoughts, and prayerfully working on the sermons I preach, I have a number of goals that are in the back of my mind. I’ve found that they help keep me centered on Jesus as well as serve to keep me from becoming a “hobby horse” preacher who only talks about the end times in every sermon (I digress). These goals also help ensure that I’m able to provoke as many of the hearts and minds as I can. When you are preaching to larger groups of people, you can’t assume that everyone is going to be engaged in the same way… yet if you aren’t intentional at attempting to communicate in a way that can engage everyone, you certainly won’t. At any rate, here are my goals:
(1) Glorify Jesus. It might seem obvious, but I hope that after every one of my sermons, Jesus was glorified. I desire my ideas and illustrations and applications would be built on Scripture and in line with the Great Tradition of orthodoxy. As people are to worship in all that they do (Rom. 12:1-2), on most Sunday mornings an aspect of worship that I participate in is preaching. I want Jesus to be lifted up through my words!
(2) Point people to Jesus. Related to glorifying Jesus, I want all of my sermons to clearly point people to Jesus and his kingdom. “Christian” preaching should be for Jesus, about Jesus, and done with Jesus’s presence through his Spirit. I hope that every single person who hears my sermons hears me say, “Yes… life has many complex problems and challenges but I am telling you that Jesus has all of the solutions and ways forward that you need” in some way, shape, and form.
(3) Empower, equip (through education), encourage, exhort, challenge, and provoke. What I love most about the Holy Spirit’s work through preaching is that God is doing so many things in the congregation simultaneously! Several weeks ago on a Sunday afternoon, a number of people sent me texts to let me know what God had been doing during the morning’s message. One person said they received a ton of hope about a situation they were facing and felt like they could trust God. Another said they hadn’t ever really thought about their role in the kingdom like that, so they were challenged to “partner with God.” Yet another felt like they could start praying for people and be more present in people’s lives.
The simple fact of the matter is that I think it’s important that we recognize how God can do a variety of “things” in the sermon space and that we can design our sermons to accomplish a variety of “things” in what we say.
(4) Stir people’s emotions, especially affections. I remember growing up and hearing that all the crazy charismatic Christians only cared about emotions and that it wasn’t right to base things on feelings and that feelings can’t be trusted, etc., etc. As a self-described “charismatic,” let me just say this: that teaching is heresy (and I don’t use that word lightly). It’s far more gnostic in origin and essentially denies how God created us! While it’s true that we need to be discerning about emotions, they are not the enemy. What preacher doesn’t want people to fall more in love with Jesus through their preaching? And shouldn’t the affections for people also be stirred? Shouldn’t our feelings of repentance and our desires for holiness spring out of hearing of the beauty and majesty of God? Yes.
The idea that emotions and feelings and affections is “bad” is both anti-biblical, it’s specifically anti-God. So… ummmm… don’t fall for it.
(5) Be proportional. Most folks talking about preaching tend to emphasize proportionality in regard to the percentage of the sermon dedicated to exposition, illustration, and application. This is extremely important.
All sermons need, I think, to have Scripture. This doesn’t mean you have to repeat the verses over and over again and call it “expository preaching” that is “verse by verse” (because it is not). But it does mean that sermons should include what has been foundational and authoritative for God’s people for thousands of years (yes, I’m going beyond the history of Christianity there because the people of Israel loved the Old Testament).
Sermons also need to have a proportional amount of illustrations and applications. People need to be able to hear stories about how Scripture can be related to their lives and how they can apply what they are hearing, especially in a world that has an increasingly uninformed understanding of the Bible.
Yet this is not the only type of proportionality one should have. I think we should attempt for our sermons to proportionally press into the following:
- Encourage people toward mission, especially God’s mission. Sermons should get people to engage in making Jesus known.
- Encourage people toward spiritual formation, such as prayer, reading Scripture, fasting, soul care, etc.
- Encourage people toward serving, in both the local church and in the community.
- Encourage people toward community. Relationships matter and discipleship happens in community.
Sermons can’t do everything and it’s absolutely critical that preachers do their best to have one “big idea” (or as Andy Stanley calls it in Communicating for a Change, a “sticky statement”). This is especially true for new preachers who have a tendency to try and put every biblical-theological idea they have ever had into their sermon.
No. Stop. Just have one basic idea and preach a shorter sermon than all of your favorite preachers do. Just trust me.
- What would you add?
- What goals do you think preachers should have?
- How do you define “preaching”?
One of my favorite verses in the entire Bible powerfully articulates the profound beauty of the gospel and how that message should impact the way we relationally live our lives with those around us. Paul writes:
“Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” (Romans 15:7 ESV)
Welcome others because Christ has welcomed you. Simple. To the point. And profoundly important for every church in every culture in every age. Regardless of whether you are in a mega-church, a small church, a missional community, or any other ecclesiological expression… welcoming people is crucial if you want to grow.
Now some churches are really good at creating a welcoming culture. A welcoming church culture says, “We are so glad you are here” and “We want you to feel comfortable and valued.” It’s a culture that highly values making new people, those you call “guests” or “visitors,” feel like they are important and valued in the local church.
But some churches are very, very, very bad at creating an atmosphere where visitors feel “welcomed.” Instead of making you feel welcomed, you feel unwelcomed and, in some cases, an inconvenience!
The context in which I address here is the common local church that meets during the week in a specific location. If you are involved in a different expression of church, you’ll need to figure out how to apply. But here are my top five things you should do if you want to be unwelcoming.
(1) Make sure no one smiles.
I recently read a study that proved smiling is actually good for your health. Did you know that smiles release antidepressants and are proven to be good for your health? You are healthier if you smile more. But not only are your smiles good for you, they are good for those around you! Studies prove that smiles are contagious!
But the fact of the matter is that many people visiting your church for the first time may be pretty nervous and somewhat scared. Maybe they haven’t been in church for a long time. Maybe the last time they were in church was a terrible experience where they were treated poorly and/or felt judged. The greeters who are opening the door and not sharing a smile do nothing to calm some of those fears and anxiety. And the people from the “stage,” be they the music leaders, preacher, or person giving the weekly announcements, could really help make people feel more welcome and comfortable if they don’t look like it’s such a pain to do what they are doing.
If you want to create a “culture of welcome,” encourage people to learn the art of smiling because it is a very easy, inexpensive (unless you had plastic surgery or botox), and powerful way to say, “Hey, I’m really glad you are here!”
(2) Ignore new people.
It might sound crazy to you, but I’ve actually been to a number of churches that literally did not say a single thing to acknowledge any of the first time guests. “Maybe they knew there weren’t any new people,” you might say. Ah ha! If only I weren’t a new person that day! Plus, on a couple of these occasions, I myself met new people while visiting that church!
Listen, you need to acknowledge new people. If you don’t, it feels like we don’t matter. And that we’re not welcome. And that we aren’t valued in any way, shape, or form.
(3) Make new people stand up and do a dance.
Speaking of acknowledging new people, there’s a huge difference between saying “Hey, if this is your first time with us, we are delighted you’ve joined us” and having new people stand up so that everyone in the church knows who they are. It’s one thing to let visitors know you are grateful they joined you and another thing altogether to have them come forward so that you can pray for them.
One of my friends once told me that when he visited a church, the pastor had all of the visitors stand up and then come forward so that he could “interview” them. He asked them why they came, where they were from, what they were looking for from the church, whether they were “saved” or not, etc. Listen, you mine as well have those visitors stand up and come forward and perform an interpretative dance.
The bottom line is that there’s a fine line between welcoming people and making people feel really uncomfortable.
(4) Provide no signage and, under no circumstances, provide coffee.
For the first nine years that I served Trinity Christian Fellowship as a pastor, we didn’t have any signs in our building. If you wanted to know where the restrooms, kitchen, or children’s classrooms were, you had to either already know where they were or ask someone.
But about a year ago, we finally followed through on something we’d discussed many times. We ordered a bunch of nice signs and placed them throughout our building. Each sign would help visitors know where the sanctuary was located, the restrooms, the “cry room” (“lactate room” seemed weird), the kitchen, and all of the children’s classrooms. And I’ve had literally dozens of people tell me they really appreciate those signs because they know where different rooms are.
Again, if someone is visiting your church’s service for the first time, they don’t know where to go. They don’t know the insider language and location for your different ministries and where they meet. So if you want to keep them from feeling welcomed, avoid doing little things like this.
Oh, and one of the worst things you can do is not have coffee, especially if your worship gathering is in the morning. This is probably just a personal preference for me, but if you don’t have coffee, my body literally can’t go to your church.
Okay, that’s a little extreme. But a smile, verbal acknowledgement, clear signage, and a cup of coffee go a long way.
(5) Keep things as unfriendly as you can.
I’ve actually visited a fair amount of churches that sure seem unfriendly. In addition to no one saying “Hey, we’re glad you came today” or having the impression that my visit was valued in any way, shape, or form, there have been churches that give me the vibe that they actually don’t want new visitors.
One time I visited a church and out of the thirty-five people in the auditorium, only one person spoke to my wife and I… and that was on our way out at the end of the service!
If you are a leader in the church, you need to do everything you can to set an example by being friendly to new people. And you should encourage the church through conversations, small groups, and preaching to be more friendly. Sometimes congregations just need to be reminded about the initial feelings people have when they first visit a church.
Well… those are a few thoughts I have.
What would you add?
God’s mission of extending the rule and reign of his kingdom to every square inch of the world is the scope of his great love. As the prophet Isaiah declares, “for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Isa 11:9). This is the great eschatological promise of the Old Testament prophets, inaugurated at Jesus’ first coming.
All this is to say that God cares about the nations and different ethnic groups spread all over the world. Unfortunately, much of church history is filled with examples where Christians assumed that their culture, ethnicity, or nationalistic identity was connected to God’s message and mission. This led to the tragic consequences of colonialism often undermining the Missio Dei.
Imagine, if you will, being in various countries in Africa or Asia or Central and South America, which each have beautiful cultures, and coming upon a church building that looks like it was built in Texas. Not only does the building stand out as being distinctly not of that community, but the songs being sung are all in English and none of the beautiful instruments that are used in that country are being used. Additionally, the preacher and other church leaders are all wearing suits and ties or dresses that also can be characterized as definitely being American or European.
Missiologists will tell you this can be a huge mistake because of the consequences of such an approach. The reality is that what was communicated to Asians and Africans and those in the global south is often that to be a follower of Jesus one must embrace the cultural traditions of while males. This has led to churches in Thailand, Kenya, and Brazil with a distinctly American identity versus the cultural identity of the actual surrounding people and cultures that those churches are in! It’s a missiological nightmare, to say the least.
Having travelled in many parts of the world outside of the US, including Africa and Asia, I’m convinced this is a very real problem and challenge for us to be aware of in the United States and Europe. We’re often to quick to assume that our western worldview should be normative and that our cultural assumptions are inherently positive and correct over and against other perspectives.
Soong-Chan Rah powerfully captures this challenge when he writes:
“The American evangelical church tends to be a few steps behind the rest of culture and society. Once evangelicalism grabs a hold of something, however, it tends to add its own unique spin. Contemporary Christian music, online Christian dating services, Christian T-shirts employing commercial logos are some of the examples of the attempt to “Christianize” American culture.” (The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity)
Rah goes on to explain that not only do we Americans often try to “Christianize” our American culture, we import our assumptions about what it means to “Christianize” by forcing those onto the cultures around us.
Let’s be clear here: this means that what we have often told Africans is that in order to follow Jesus they have to look like us, talk like us, and worship just like us.
Culturally Relevant Mission is a Great Starting Point to Correct this
Of the five Core Values of the Vineyard, our commitment to “pursue culturally relevant mission in the world” is a great starting point toward correcting this tragic missiological approach. The reason why it is so important is because it assumes that God’s Mission must be expressed in a “culturally relevant” manner. The gospel of the kingdom is relevant and applicable to every single culture that exists! And the message of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection can be communicated using every language available. And followers of Jesus can worship God in their own languages with their own cultural tools (e.g., instruments) while wearing their own localized clothing. And the building in which they gather together can be their home, which looks like all of the other homes in the village, or a building that looks like all of the other buildings around them.
You see, I think it would be a mistake to only understand the core value of pursing culturally relevant mission if it means we’re focused on reaching every generation, old and young alike. That is certainly an aspect of pursuing culturally relevant mission but it’s not the end all, be all. We need to expand our understanding of what this means. Here are a few suggestions:
(1) Pursuing culturally revenant mission means that we need to correctly understand the different between the message of Jesus versus the message of our own cultural identity which we import into Jesus’ message. The fact of the matter is that we all make many assumptions about what is included in telling Jesus’ story and what he’s doing. Our church baggage, whether it includes positive or negative experiences, need to be understood as being just that… ours. Again, western culture is not a heavenly culture. The Christianity of early American history (i.e., the Puritans) may have been great American expressions of the Christian faith, encapsulated within the American (and British!) culture. But that does not mean that early American culture should be considered the best expression of a Christian culture. The Christians living in other parts of the world, and there were many, that were following Jesus in their own cultural traditions should be considered just as relevant and important as the Puritans.
(2) Pursuing culturally relevant mission means we do all that we can to communicate the message of Jesus in a way that is understandable to those watching and listening. If we were proclaiming and demonstrating the kingdom of God to people from a uniquely Asian background, we would want to use their language so they could understand our words. We would also want to provide visuals and applications and word pictures as well as engage the challenges that their own culture provides. This goes for people from different generations and a whole host of different backgrounds. The point is that we make the effort that they understand the message of Jesus. The methods and ministries are fluid whereas the message remains the same… yet it must be communicated in an understandable way.
(3) Pursuing culturally relevant mission means that we need to take the time to understand before we just communicate. Many an American missionary, whether short-term or long-term, has learned that there are things that we do or words that we use or ideas that we have that are offensive to others from different cultures. If we’re only concerned with communicating and don’t take the time to communicate effectively by understanding the best way communicate, we can actually do more damage than make positive inroads!
Creative Missions in the Kingdom
What I love about reading the New Testament is that we see how creative the early Christians were! This appears to be the natural outworking of what the apostle Paul stated:
“To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law.” (1 Cor. 9:20)
St. Ambrose, a controversial bishop from the 4th century, put it this way:
“… if you should be in Rome, live in the Roman manner; if you should be elsewhere, live as they do there.”
Consider these different “mission targets”:
- Young people
- Middle aged people
- Old people
- Urban centers
- Rural communities
- Unique ethnic groups effective
- People from other religions
Each of these groups raise unique challenges and opportunities that we either overlook or intuitively respond too. For Scripture itself indicates that effective missional praxis demands Spirit-inspired creativity.
I’ll close with the way in which the Vineyard core value on culturally relevant mission is expressed:
The church exists for the sake of those who are exiled from God. We are called to bring the gospel of the kingdom to every nook and cranny of creation, faithfully translating the message of Jesus into language and forms that are relevant to diverse peoples and cultures.
We seek to plant churches that are culturally relevant in a wide variety of settings locally and internationally. Each Vineyard church is encouraged to reach those in its community not already reached by existing churches. To this end, we promote a creative, entrepreneurial and innovative approach to ministry that is faithful to Jesus and expressive of His heart to reach those who are far away from God.
This missional lean is critically important for us because it helps us effectively reach people from every tribe, tongue, and nation while also challenging us to recognize the difference between God’s kingdom and our own cultures.