Sunday, May 29, 2011

Chinese Language Traditional Script Edition

I was thrilled yesterday to receive a package from Baker Books containing three copies of the just translated 360degree Preaching in Chinese. It says it is in the "traditional script" - I am not sure what this means as compared with non-traditional! But it gives me yet another bizarre experience of holding copies of a book which I wrote, yet each page is utterly intelligible.

China is an extraordinary country with powerful economics and inspiring signs of spiritual growth in the Christian church. When the Chinese editor last wrote to me she spoke of her prayers that this book will be greatly used to help a new generation of preachers in China. Of course, I echo her prayers but I have only the vaguest notions of what it might mean! Over here there are seminaries, conferences and amazon. However things may work out over there (and I guess they have all three!), I have now put China on my prayer agenda that my little effort might bear fruit along the way. What a privilege even if it influences just one preacher for good! Bizzarely wonderful! Thank you, Lord, for an unexpected sphere of influence for you.

Monday, May 23, 2011

To most people it's phooey!

Over lunch with my academic colleagues today I happened to mention the comment in my last post from that critic of preaching who claimed preaching could not be transformational. "Well, " responded one of my friends: 'He is speaking for many people in our churches. Ask them honestly what they think about preaching and they'll say it is phooey! All phooey! Because, frankly much preaching has no impact at all on the church. He has read the situation better than you Michael! "

This brought me up with a jolt. It's one thing to claim what great possibilities preaching should/might have. This is a favority ploy especially by preaching professors whose lives are (too) bound up high thoughts about preaching. But this critic does give a painful reality check. In too many places preaching has fallen into dull, generic blah! Indeed, a couple of stories followed where recent preaching experiences not only failed to be positive, nor were even neutral, but were actually negative in impact. They actually made matters worse. Help!

I felt challenged about slick claims. Sometimes critics do read the situation better. It doesn't mean dropping expectations but it explains skepticism and resistance.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Seeking Excellence (3)

Returning from the conference at Green Lake I have many thoughts. They were a great group of pastors and their graduation banquet on Thursday night was inspiring as they reflected on their two year program together. They were all grouped in sixes or sevens, each group with a coach who had kept them closely together in their studies. One of these coaches said to me: "This is all about connectedness. Ministry goes wrong when you drift off on your own - then it's difficult to stay close to Christ. But the closer you stay connected to the other pastors in the group, the more likely it is to stay close to Jesus Christ." Certainly, I have never seen such honest and joyful connections among pastors.

About my part I am still reflecting. Two contrasting comments say much.

  • At my first meal I was introduced to one of the other main speakers at the conference over breakfast. Straight off he said: "I see you are talking about "transformational preaching." Those two words don't belong together!' Taken aback I asked why. ' Because preaching is something that comes top-down and transformation only happens from bottom-up. I do not believe preaching changes anything! John Wesley didn't change Britain by his preaching but by his methods of organization." I was surprised by the suddenness and strength of his challenge. I realized yet again how disillusioned many (able & thoughtful) Christians are about whether God can use preaching to build community for mission. It was a wake-up call.

  • At the end a pastor saw me in the parking lot. "Thank you for ruining my preaching," he said. "Your teaching really pulled some of my practices apart and made me think again." However, he did smile! I had mentioned in one session that effective preachers are always keen to learn more about preaching. I did sense that he was seeking to be more effective as he returned to his church.

We rarely know the outcome of events like this. I was grateful to share my passion for preaching and leadership, but I return even more aware of the mountain of skepticism and resistance that has to be climbed.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Seeking Excellence (2)

I have been pondering which Scripture passage to use for some practical work at the upcoming conference. I plan to give each person a copy of the text from my NIV Study Bible so that they see not only the passage but some basic commentary underneath. Various choices have come to mind.

I have decided to use Ephesians 4: 1-16. Titled: Unity in the Body of Christ, I know this will be well-known (which will be an advantage). Since I shall be speaking about the task of preaching/leading, this key passage on the purpose of the church seems highly appropriate. Each pastor will be given opportunity to work on the exegesis and interpretation of this passage and I am planning to give a twist to the exercise. At the end of the morning session I shall preach a (short) sermon on part of this text. But, in the afternoon session I shall invite the conference to critique this sermon on the basis of its preaching/leading qualities.

I know this is a risk! When she heard my idea, Carol was disturbed: "Are you going to preach deliberately poorly in the morning so that there's plenty to discuss later?" No, I don 't intend doing that! That does seem perverse and artificial. But I shall leave certain things unsaid and see whether the conference identifes them. And yes, I am prepared for all sorts of critique I had not anticipated! Thanks for your prayers....and I will let you know what happens.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Seeking Excellence

I was delighted with the posting to my last question about what I should tell Senior Pastors at this upcoming conference (Center of Excellence in Congregational Leadership ). I was urged to ensure these "battle worn scar satuated pastors" receive some JOY rather than academic lectures. I resonate with that!

Another suggestion has been made to me that I include time to talk about "preaching without notes." Apparently this person had heard me speak on this subject some time ago and it transformed his subsequent preaching. I am always concerned that "preaching without notes" can be deemed merely a clever technique for improving communication skills. Certainly it is a technique and developing the primary (short term) memory is something I encourage all my students to do. But, of course, no amount of skilful presentation can compensate if there is no faithful exegesis and sound interpretation of Scripture and sheer zing of the Spirit blowing through the whole process.

However, since I have seven hours for teaching I think I will include a challenge about preaching without notes. I need to do it joyfully though! I am also deciding on a Scripture text for practical work during the day. More on that shortly.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Senior Pastors seeking Excellence

I remember asking readers a couple of years ago to help me prepare to speak at the Moody Pastors' Conference. I asked: "What should I tell these pastors?" Several really helpful suggestions came from non-preachers who spoke from the heart! I used some of them in my address.

Shortly (on May 18) I face another opportunity. The Center for Excellence in Congregational Leadership is a two year program for Senior Pastors (at Green Lake, Wisconsin). It goal is summed up: "By the winds of the Holy Spirit to help pastors increase joy in ministry and help churches reach communities for Christ through health and outward focus." I have been given a whole day for teaching about preaching.

Of course, they will be experienced preachers. Conference organizers have asked them to read my books on preaching so (perhaps) they will be aware of what I might say! I am really praying about which few vitally significant things deserve maximum attention. I want to encourage lively participation and be open to the winds of the Holy Spirit breathing fresh enthusiasm.

I should so value prayer as this develops. I shall let you know and, as always, your insights are welcome.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Truth 1 Preaching is sheer mystery

This has to be at the top, or near the top of God's list! When I say "mystery" I do not mean some obscure puzzle that leaves people scratching their heads. Paul described his calling " I became (the church's) servant according to God's commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints. (Col 1:25,26). Here the word mystery (drawn from contemporary religious use) means truth that could only be discovered by God's revelation in history. It is all of God. He has now made it an "open secret" in Jesus Christ, but that doesn't mean it is straightforward and sits easily with conventional human wisdom. Actually, it is utterly unlike any other truth you have ever heard.

Nowhere is this plainer than the way the apostle describes how "God decided through the foolishness of our proclamation to save those who believe" (1 Cor 1:20). This does not mean that preaching is foolish, but that it seems foolish to rational hearers. In fact, to them it is absurd nonsense. The world has never understood the paradox of God's wisdom. That the message about Jesus' death on a cross and apparent defeat is the clearest way God expresses who He is, and what He has done for the world. Here "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son (John 3:16). "

When you preach the paradox of the cross you are on the front edge of foolishness. Yet this very act is God's wisdom and power. By ordinary people, God confronts the world's wisdom with his own. Never straight forward but gloriously powerful, this is the mystery of preaching. Anyone who preaches commits to an awesome task of telling out a different kind of wisdom.

How this truth rebukes the presumption that lies behind truism 1. Most preachers regard themselves as above average. How dare we think that we can measure how "good" our preaching is. Rather, God seeks people who are foolishlessly powerful in his service. Heralds of mystery need to be humble and overawed by the high calling.

I like how James Earl Massey sums it up:

Mystery is something whose utter strangeness and stubborness forever resist all attempt on our part to domesticate it, dominate, define it or dismiss it. Life is a mystery! Death is a mystery! The incarnation is a mystery! The resurrection of Jesus from death is a mystery! Our life on this planet involves us in mystery! The story of God's gracious dealings with us through grace involves us in mystery! We who preach are stewards of the mysteries of God. What we offer and extend through preaching can be experienced but it is more wonderful - filled with what arouses wonder and awe- than we can fully explain. (Stewards of the Story, WJK: 2006, page 4).

Oh, Yes!