Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Technology and Preaching

In class today we had lively discussion about technology's role in preaching. One student, a youth pastor, (very gifted in creating short movies), reflected on how churches have changed perceptions of technology over the last ten years. From being dazzled that a preacher was actually using power-point and video clips, hearers now focus more on substance. The wow factor has gone, and the quality question is now being asked! He claimed that technology is particularly "embedded" in young people's experience so that they take it for granted, and look through it for content.

Overall, the class believed that preachers should use technology, especially when others (in teams) can help develop content for Sunday worship, But, they warned...
- using powerpoint to throw yet more words at the congregation, rather complement words by images;
- allowing powerful movie clips to overshadow preachers' words;
- becoming predictable by e.g. using a movie clip every Sunday;
- devoting more time to technology style than biblical content;
- thinking slick technology can compensate for sloppy preaching.

Calling preachers and listeners: Have you had good experiences of preaching and technology, or would you add to these warnings?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Bloggers' Fatigue

I could hardly believe a recent Chicago Tribune editorial, (April 14,2008), that claimed two well-known bloggers have recently died of heart attacks. Their deaths were linked, by some, to the "emotional stress" caused by unending pressures of producing new blogs. Already facing a demanding job and home life, the need to post yet another "worthwhile" blog can apparently push you over the very edge.

The newspaper gave sage advice: "The blunt truth is that most bloggers don't have the following they imagine they do. So lighten up, bloggers. Push away from the keyboard. The world won't notice a few less words. You want to aim for quality not quantity, which is hard to achieve if you're substituting Red Bull for sleep."

I do try to take a relaxed attitude - posting on issues as and when they strike me. But your comments are extraordinarily affirmative. Thank you for showing that one or two readers do follow along. And I shall hope to keep balanced about future blogging efforts!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Repeating sermons - OK?

Should preachers should repeat old sermons? Recently a preacher told me that he had never done this, and implied that somehow it was a shabby and unworthy practice.
Inevitably, for itinerant preachers like me, repeating sermons is a temptation. But, (as with so much else), doesn't it depend on motives? If a preacher lazily opts out of new responsibility by reheating stale stuff - then this is bad news. And, if a preacher peddles a five-star sermon thoughtlessly - more bad news.

Let me come clean! Over the next two Sundays, at First Baptist Church Wheaton, I am repeating two sermons preached a couple of months ago in the "God's Promises series." I hope this is no lazy opting out or thoughtless peddling. Because of others' quality collaboration earlier, (you can still read the blogs), and the depth of story telling involved, I believe these two messages should speak powerfully again - dependent on the Holy Spirit. Of course, they will be different this time - because I preach without notes, dynamics inevitably change. Actually, I have already spent several hours this week back with the Scriptures, immersed in preparation. So, I pray that with freshness God will speak again through Psalm 1 and 1 Peter 5:1-7. I believe He can! And it will still be demanding work for the preacher. So, some repetition is permissible?

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Time management

Mea culpa! I have just come across a talk I gave at Spring Harvest a few years ago on time management. Seeing my material was a wake-up call. It was set within biblical commands about effective stewardship of everything - including time. A (yellowing) overhead projection acetate highlighted five actions:
Do it now
Single touching
Good enough is good
Avoid waste
I think I challenged my listeners with some authority....but reading these again, I have much to confess! I do procrastinate, especially answering emails. I rarely deal with paper work decisively and immediately (single touching), nor does my largish perfectionist streak sit easily with "good enough is good." Delegation and avoiding waste (of time) remain targets. How easy it is to dish out advice at a conference (and really believe it!) and then return to my norm! But I do believe the Holy Spirit makes a difference not only to holiness but to wholeness - He wants to help me with time management too. I'm glad I've been reminded - already it's made a (much needed) difference.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Irrelevant church

Relevance is a preaching buzz word. I was reminded of its potency by a recent article,(Chicago Tribune April 16), about worship services at Relevant Church in Tampa. It featured "Day 21 of Relevant's 30-day sex challenge, aimed at helping married couples rekindle that sensual spark .." Apparently, the teaching is traditionally biblical though provocative - that's why it captured the headlines! This sex series clearly fits with this church's main aim to be relevant, and 17,000 have visited their internet site since this series began.

Yet, I find the word "relevant" dangerous. Of course, Christian teaching should cover every part of life, and the Christian gospel should be heard in ways that current culture can understand. If it comes across as irrelevant then it's not God's news. Can you imagine a church calling itself: the Irrelevant Church?

But the question is: who is it relevant to? Relevant preaching may easily start at Point B, with us. It makes God relevant to our lives. It fits a god message into fallen human-sized living. But what really matters is what's relevant to God? Begin with Point A. When Isaiah goes to worship (Isa. 6) he is confronted by God's holy glory. When Jesus preaches, it's for repentance and faith and a journey in his kingdom (Mark 1:14). It fits renewed humans into God's new creation living (2 Cor 5:17). It turns human living upside down by spiritual transformation into kingdom living. Beginning with Point B misses God's transcendence.

I have a troubling vision. I cannot imagine a church calling itself "the Irrelevant Church," but I think its possible God might call some churches exactly that! Any thoughts out there?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Free on-line ordination

I am still in shock. While visiting family in New Jersey, (including some great grandson experiences with two year old Elliot!), we met a neighbor. A high school teacher, smartly dressed in a suit, he was obviously in a hurry. He announced that he was off to officiate at a wedding. Seeing puzzled looks, he explained that he had recently been ordained by the Universal Life Church Monastery. With pride he told us it was his fourth wedding.

Apparently this organization believes in the rights of all people to practice their beliefs, regardless of what those beliefs are, as long as they do not infringe on the rights of others and are within the law. They therefore ordain persons who are totally non-religious or even anti-religious because they are looking to change negative perception of religion while encouraging people to fearlessly state their religious beliefs, even if the only thing that a person can say is that he or she does not have any beliefs.

I am still processing this information. I suppose I am not surprised that an outfit should offer ordination free on-line, nor that they should practice relativism so glibly. But, they claim over 20 million ministers have gained such free ordination since 1959. Are these intelligent people who sincerely think that anybody can "do religious ministry"? Or people on a crusade, who would see the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ as part of the "negative perception of religion"? Or people after a quick buck? What about those who seek their services - do they care so little about belief?

I am still reeling from this encounter. What's your response?

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

On Eloquence

Eloquence from preachers has long been suspect among evangelicals. Beautiful words are assumed to draw attention away from God, and on to the speaker. Focused on gospel content, we want crisp outlines, nuts and bolts descriptions, and practical forceful 4x4 applications. Who could justify spending time on vivid, expressive, beautiful language?

John Wilson commented recently (Books and Culture Jan/Feb 2008) about today's general indifference to eloquence. Indeed, we need "to recognize a pervasive tendency in evangelicalism: an overweening earnestness. There is, of course, a time to be earnest, and much that is good in the evangelical tradition reflects this imperative. But how dreary, how deadly, when earnestness loses all sense of proportion."

There are obvious dangers in seeking eloquence for its own sake but, in the face of much dreary deadliness, how vitally preachers need to dwell in and express God's grace, with the wonder and beauty He deserves. "Shining like stars in the universe, as you hold out the word of life" Phil 2:15. Hands up those who would welcome a little more eloquence!

Monday, April 7, 2008

Preaching Incarnation (3)

Yesterday I preached on Phil. 2: 1-11 as planned. The University Baptist Church, on the University of Illinois campus, is largely composed of university students. It was lively and responsive. Worship began with a student's believers' baptism. Looking out at the congregation, with an average age in the twenties, I was reminded of past heady days working as Baptist chaplain at Cambridge University.

For the sermon, the metaphor of the "escalator" stayed with me. Actually, when I googled "escalator" I found many references to a Robert Hazard 1980"s song:
We're riding on the escalator of life,
We're shopping in the human mall,
We're dancing on the escalator of life,
Won't be happy 'til we have it all.

"Escalator of Life" has a ring to it. (And I also used an escalator comment from Bill Suriano posted on my blog, April 2, 2008!) I called the sermon: "Going Up? Going Down?" The world views the escalator of life as going up - scrambling for power and significance. But, in his incarnation Jesus reverses the direction - he goes down from glory into humble service. The challenge to the church in Philippi, and to us, is whether we are living for pride and power, going up with Adam, or living for humble service, joining in and going down with Jesus Christ.

Afterwards several students talked about what Christ's challenge to live counter the world actually meant for them. I was humbled by their honesty and faith. And I ask myself today: Going Up? or Going Down?

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Sweet Tomatoes

I had lunch yesterday in a restaurant called Sweet Tomatoes, near the seminary. I met up with a church leader to talk about prayer. A family from church saw us and greeted us warmly. As they were about to leave, the son ran across to our table and asked me: " Will you be talking about Sweet Tomatoes in your next sermon?"

I suppose he recognized that events like this have featured in my sermons from time to time. Perhaps he was intrigued to think how a week day lunch might somehow fit into God's good news. Well it might! The truth is that nothing happens that is too ordinary for God not to be involved, too dull for Him not to be interested, or too valueless to be discarded. Even a salad and soup lunch.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Preaching Incarnation (2)

Preachers sometimes seek to sum up a Scripture passage by a metaphor. As I wrestled with Phil 2:1-11 I have been challenged about describing the downward movement in Jesus' incarnation that must precede his exaltation (verses 9-11). Though there is much rich theology here, for the apostle it's the self-emptying humbling (verse 8) that seems of greatest consequence in this context. For ( in addition to much else) Christ's incarnation, models the way that Christians "in humility should consider others better than themselves" (verse 3).

I wonder about ESCALATOR as a metaphor - as mass people-movers going up and down? While most people scramble to go up in the world, Jesus takes an entirely different route. Perhaps there is something to this picture?

At the moment I sum up this passage's main impact: by God's grace what my sermon will SAY is: As Jesus refused to use his divine power, but humbly became nothing - a servant prepared to die for his mission - so those united with him should follow his way of humility.
And by God's grace what my sermon will DO: challenge us together to join with him in his downward movement of humility.

I still have much work to do!