Wednesday, July 23, 2008

10 leading questions for preachers

Wsuriano' asked about new wine/new wineskins (2) - yes, I hope to post the paper eventually- and also about the questions I posed. So far, I have used these questions with Doctor of Ministry students and at pastors' conferences, and have relied on anecdotal responses (mostly positive) rather than conducting a more formal survey. For the record let me list all ten. They flow out of my book 360degree leadership.

How thin-blooded is my preaching?
Consider carefully the language and tone used, as well as the sermon content.
1. Individualistic. Look at the language. Is "you" always about the personal individual lives of hearers, and how often is "you" (plural) and "we" related to the community? Does the "kingdom of God feature in your language? Can a hearer walk away thinking that Christ's challenge in only about "my life, my purpose, my future"?
2. Aimed at head or heart but rarely at both. Note how much the preacher
a. Taught with textual references
b. Or told a story.
Identify where head and heart were balanced, to call the community to be holistically engaged?
3. Spineless theology. Was there a theology of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, either explicit or implicit. Where else do you share theological truth to undergird continuing Christian experience.
4. Generic application. Consider the illustrations and applications - did they seem to connect specifically with the context? In what ways did the personal relationship of preacher with church community and surrounding context make the sermon particular rather than general?
5. Avoids conflict. Were there issues of tension within the congregation that were addressed directly? Were there assumptions that everything in church is bound to be happy?
6. Low compliance. How much expectation of response came through this sermon? Did you perceive particular outcomes were prayed over and planned for?
7. Absence of process issues. Was there any connection with larger visions and strategic changes that involve the whole church congregation? Were there applications that earthed the message in God's bigger plan for the church community?
8. Solo role. Were other people involved in the sermon preparation and its delivery? Was there deliberate involvement of other organizational aspects of church life?
9. Cowardice. Were there points at which "punches seemed to be pulled" so that specific Scripture challenges were softened and missed?
10. Missionally defective. In what ways did the sermon challenge the church to live as missional people, expressing Christ's life and love in its witness before the world?
As I confessed earlier, these questions have tested me! Others have commented about failure, especially at points 1, 3, 5, 9 and 10. I know the questions themselves could be improved and I should value further feedback of any kind.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Seeing WALL-E with the grandkids

I have just seen Pixar's well-reviewed movie WALL-E, with Luca (aged 6) and Anton (aged 3). The film deserves praise for creating such a powerful story with such unlikely material. Set on a deeply depressing toxic wasteland of Earth, and an equally dismal spaceship with obese human beings, the hero is a rusty garbage disposal unit whose only friend appears to be a cockroach, until Eve (Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) drops into his loneliness.
There's enough science-fiction echoes, clever allusions and deft humor to keep adults engaged, but I was amazed by how much emotion was invested in these central characters, Wall-e and Eve, so that even our three-year old stayed connected to the end. How extraordinary that digital technology can convey such a convincing world, with almost wordless machines making the story line!
I was reminded of a list I use in class, which places the significant parts of effective communication in order of priority. Susan Page (Away with Words) offers this mnemonic, INLAWS, representing:
I think preachers (and other communicators) need to recognize that words come lower in order than we might imagine, and that silence matters too.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

New Wine/New Wineskins (2)

My other paper for Prague is ready, having benefited from your comments to earlier postings. I have enjoyed reading others, such as Van Gelder (in Review & Expositor Vol 101:2). He summarizes old and new wineskins by contrasting the corporate church with the missional church. Claiming that the majority of Christian congregations share one characteristic in common, he describes the corporate church (embedded in the European version of Constantinian Christendom) as marked by a self-understanding that it exists 'as an organization to accomplish something, normally on behalf of God in the world.' However, the missional church's self understanding is 'a called and sent community created by Spirit to participate in God's mission in the world.' There is a world of difference between the DOING corporate church and the BEING missional church.
Now this contrast is inevitably oversimplified, yet the missional model, undergirded by a lively Trinitarian theology (inviting us to share with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit), does speak powerfully of new wineskins.
I shall be interested, within the conference's international context, to see how many identify with the missional church rather than the corporate. And what difference should this make to our seminary teaching?
At the end of my paper I decided (cheekily) to give an example from my teaching of preachers. I refer to a worksheet with ten questions that I use with preachers, who need to select a number of recent sermons for analysis: 'How thin-blooded is my preaching?' Question 1 asks how individualistic the sermons are. 'Look at the language. Is "you" always about the personal individual lives of hearers, and how often is "you" (plural) and "we" related to the community? Does the "kingdom of God feature in your language? Can a hearer walk away thinking that Christ's challenge in only about "my life, my purpose, my future"?
Question 3 asks about 'spineless theology'. Underline where there is a theology of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, either explicit or implicit. Where else do you share theological truth to undergird continuing Christian experience. Question 10 asks whether sermons are 'missionally defective': In what ways did the sermon challenge the church to live as missional people, expressing Christ's life and love in its witness before the world?
Having used the full ten questions many times over the last two years I can tell you most preachers fall short somewhere. I certainly do. I shall let you know what happens at the conference!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Alarm Bells

This past week I needed to use a public library in order to go on-line. After a few days I felt adjusted to the process, signing ahead for computer allocation, reading my personal messages in public, and even getting used to the library layout. Reaching the computer room was not obvious from the main entrance, but round corners and up some stairs. However, with confidence, on my last day I signed off, waltzed down the stairs, turned right, past shelves of books, and threw open the discover that they were alarmed (loudly), and intended for emergency use only. Two library staff came rushing to find who was to blame. All library users turned to witness my embarrassment. My explanation that I forgot where the main entrance was seemed very feeble.
The immediate impact, (apart from needing to apologize and use the main doors to exit), involved shock of being so publicly exposed for a mistake. But, on reflection, I thought of those times when my sins of commission and omission have passed without anyone appearing to notice. And the false sense of self-worth this brings.
Actually, God does know everything I do (Psalm 139:1). In his mercy He rarely rings alarm bells publicly, but He expects me to be constantly aware of His knowledge and strength:
Examine me O God and know my mind
test me, and discover my thoughts.
Find out if there is any evil in me
and guide me in the everlasting way (Psalm 139: 23, 24).

(Not to be outdone, arriving at the London house where we are staying in Spurgeon's College, Carol set off the alarm - again, extremely loudly and embarrassingly!)

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Integrity Issues (5)

My paper for the Prague conference is coming together, with thanks for input from your comments. Called: Issues of Integrity facing proclaimers of the gospel, it will comprise three parts:

1) Integrity of the preacher - the obvious starting point concerns the preacher's personal moral character and ethical practice. A checklist for such integrity, (I have drawn on some recent articles), includes: sexuality, finances, accountability, exegesis, plagiarism and manipulation of hearers. Interestingly, a book published in 1966 called The Preacher's Integrity has no mention of the first three on the list! Is it a sign of the times that sexuality, finances and accountability have become such hot issues today?

2) Integrity of the preaching task - while faithful exegesis and plagiarism are important issues, there is a need to tackle how preaching itself enables hearers to think and behave with moral discernment. Shouldn't preaching enable congregations to practice moral discernment in the way they live Sundays to Saturdays? I have been struck by a book Preaching What We Practice - Proclamation and Moral Discernment (David J. Schlafer and Timothy F. Sedgwick, 2007) that challenges preachers to engage their hearers in corporate accountability and moral response by the way they live. Preaching can fail in its biblical ethical task, can't it?

3) Integrity of the Congregation's role as proclaimers of the gospel. It is also important to realize that preaching is not just the responsibility of a person at the front, but of the whole people to live out the gospel in community. Congregations and preachers can collude to harm this integrity. Sometimes this is deliberate. Ed Young Jr. has just caused a stir by his video : Church Pirates Beware condemning those who join church staffs only to siphon off resources and build their own following down the street. But there is also unwitting collusion such as pursuing idolatries of efficiency and success. Preachers can please congregations by communication fireworks, business expertise and comfortable platitudes all contributing to self-serving goals that miss Christ's gospel call of witness and service.

I look forward to blogging what happens when I share some of this in a couple of weeks' time. Can you see glaring omissions in my summary?

Marriage - 40 years on!

On Sunday, July 6th, Carol and I celebrated 40 years of marriage (called Ruby Wedding in England!) It was a strangely wonderful time.

Partly, because I was preaching in Abingdon Baptist Church, Oxfordshire. (Carol said it was typical of our whole marriage that the church still took priority!) None of our family could be present, though Carol's chief bridesmaid and her husband attended the service, and treated us to lunch afterwards. We reflected how forty years earlier, at Chatsworth Baptist Church, West Norwood in South London, it was the church family who made our wedding so memorable. They laid on the entire reception. Since Carol had no parents alive, the church stepped in to create a magnificent wedding banquet in the church hall. Sometimes we talk about church 'family' in abstract terms, but this was real. And the church has continued to be vital to our lives. So, it was highly appropriate for me to preach on my wedding anniversary.

But also, it was strange because of the compression of memories that such an anniversary brings. All my ministry I have heard people say that 'they can't believe where the time has gone', ' they don't feel any older', ' it only seems like yesterday.' But we echo these comments ,with profound gratitude to each other for God's love that really has triumphed through our own story. Actually, I preached on God's gospel goodness and that sums up our story best of all.