It’s that time again. Once in awhile it is healthy to take a break. Because I’m an active technology user, I need to step away once in awhile to remind myself that I use technology with a purpose, or it will use me.
This weekend is the unofficial (but recognized) kick-off to summer, and our family is heading up North for a little vacation. We have often taken JUNE off from television/technology in the last few years. I’m going to follow that tradition this year, too.
Also, for those of you who know me best, you have seen how much of my life has been wrapped up in late nights and early mornings studying. My family has not seen much of me these last nine months, and I haven’t seen enough of them, either. I’ve got a few more assignments to wrap up before next Friday, and then I’m deeply looking forward to going on more dates, playing catch and reading with my kids, and basically being present with and for them.
I’m overdue for a tech Sabbath. It seems like the time is right. I’m not done blogging or tweeting or Facebooking altogether (unless the Lord so leads), but for now, I’m getting off the train. Catch up with y’all later this summer! God bless.
I was 11. I heard this word more than any other word during my Little League days under the summer sun in Bemidji, MN. Coach Whitey Anderson could say HUSTLE more times in a minute than anyone I’ve ever known. I loved baseball. Still do. In large part, thanks to Coach Whitey.
“Skogerboe, you’re a ball player, son. You’re a ball player. You can play this game right here. Yessir. Skogerboe’s a ball player.”
Coach Whitey was like encouragement on steroids for a young second baseman who otherwise wouldn’t have considered himself much of a ballplayer. I was moderately athletic, but overshadowed by the up-and-coming superstars. I could hold my own in the field and maintained a somewhat below average track record in the batting box, but I kept in the game year after year, growing better in my skill-set and deeper in love with the game. Coach Whitey fueled me to keep getting better, to learn why “hustle” had more to do with a healthy competitive attitude than just physical “hurry-up,” and he helped build into me a deep love of baseball that has never gone away.
Now I have a 10-year-old out there under the lights. I see his coach picking up the mantle from Coach Whitey for the next generation. I see him FEEDING encouragement and high expectations to the young men under his charge. And the boys are thriving. When Isaac talks about baseball, his eyes flash. Coach Haberlie is not just getting the bases covered, and he’s not just getting results… he’s building baseball lovers.
I just got an email from Coach last night, asking me to encourage Isaac, that he was so proud to have Isaac on the Team, and he is consistent in saying, “He is made for this game.” I hear echoes of Coach Whitey… “You’re a ball player, son. Skogerboe’s a ball player.”
These guys are both great leaders, and I hold them both in high regard.
The consistent ingredient in great leadership isn’t enthusiasm. It isn’t deeper, better, higher knowledge. It isn’t the ability to control outcomes.
The consistent ingredient in great leadership is this: INFLUENCE.
Coach Whitey literally changed my life. My childhood years are full of great memories, and I was a ball player. I believed it to my core. And now I see Isaac out there making plays, wrecking the knees of his baseball pants, and it’s better than the Twins. He’s hungry for baseball. Isaac’s gone from casual to passionate. THAT is INFLUENCE. And Coach Haberlie has been clear from the beginning: His goal is to help shape these boys into young men of character first, great athletes second. He’s not only influencing the boys… he’s influencing their dads. That’s great leadership.
All kinds of people read this blog. Friends and family, Pastors, Ministry leaders, Worship leaders… All kinds of people in all kinds of leadership roles. Here’s where ball meets bat, rubber meets road, hammer meets nail on the head… LEADERSHIP = INFLUENCE.
This has implications for two groups today.
First of all, if you don’t consider yourself a “leader,” you are WRONG. Think about your circle of relationships. Certainly among those relationships are a handful over whom you have some kind of influence. If you have influence, you have leadership. You may lead badly, of course, and influence those around you to make bad choices, to turn away from God or from wise counsel. But make no mistake: if you have influence, you are a leader. Lead well.
Secondly, if you THINK you are a leader, or if you are a leader by position, this is a good measuring stick for you. Are you herding a group, or are you leading? Are you steering outcomes, or are you leading? In other words, are you truly INFLUENCING the lives of those you lead? If you are in a position of authority, take a cue from Coach Whitey and Coach Haberlie… don’t just steer. LEAD. Don’t just point people. INFLUENCE people. Stop, pray, and think about how you can not just get the job done, but how can your influence lead to changed lives. If you are a leader, then LEAD WELL.
The consistent ingredient in great leadership is INFLUENCE. If you don’t have influence, you’re not really leading. And if you think you don’t have a role as a leader, invest in those you have influence over.
We only get one life. Wield some influence and change some lives, because time is short. And in the spirit of Coach Whitey… HUSTLE.
I was mowing the lawn and listening to a message from Rob Bell. I remember the spot. I was between those two pine trees in our yard where it is hard to twist the mower into the right position without scratching up your elbows on the branches. I remember it, I think, because sometimes when you hear something significant that grabs your attention and rings your proverbial bell (no pun intended), the moment is preserved like a snapshot. I had to stand still for a moment. The implications were deep and far reaching. With the muted hum of the mower fighting for my attention behind the earbuds of my iPod, Rob’s words rang in my head, and my heart began to swell in resonnance…
“The Church is not called to be the moral police of the world.”
I think… I think this is right. I really do. I think not only is is right, it is important. In fact, I think the evangelical Church has often hurt the cause of sharing the gospel and loving people well because we’re too busy judging those who aren’t even on the team.
Let this idea ring in your mind a bit. You – your church – are not called to pour out judgment on the unbelieving world. How does that make you feel? Are you nodding your head in agreement? Are you concerned – blood pressure rising – because this sounds like cheap-grace pandering to the lowest common moral denominator? Or option three… you honestly don’t know what to think. Should the church proclaim the high moral values that the Bible makes clear, or do we save the moral judgments for the pulpit on Sunday morning? Or… is there another way?
Just take note of how you feel. “The Church is not called to be the moral police of the world.”
If you have a problem with Rob Bell, get in line. Thousands of blog posts and articles have and will continue to examine Pastor Bell’s theological positions with regard to orthodox Christian beliefs. This is not one of those posts. This isn’t about the man. It’s about the idea. “The Church is not called to be the moral police of the world.”
Why does this matter? Because the world is broken. People are hurting. Marriages are stressed, and as people who are far from God try to find peace through relationships, chemicals, distractions, and financial sucess, they often realize that in their core… when it’s quiet… something is still unsettled. God wired us with a conscience and with a need for peace that can only be met by the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
So many people are wounded, lost, scared, and faking it. They need God’s love, and they already know they don’t measure up. They know this isn’t working.
So this becomes a discussion of church methodology, and personal evangelism, and just how we ought to relate to our coworkers and fellow soccer moms and little league dads and neighbors. I believe that grace and love, in and because of Jesus, has more life-changing power than moralizing and finger-pointing. If you want to assure that your gay neighbor will never set foot inside the doors of your church, just treat him with contempt. If you want to be sure that the twenty-something administrastive assistant in the cubicle around the corner from you who just moved in with her boyfriend feels unwelcome to come to your church, be sure to offer your unsolicited opinion about shacking up.
Now before you think I’m a conflict-avoider who is advocating a jello-for-backbone approach to morality and culture, let me be clear: I’m a huge fan of living out your convictions with clarity and integrity. I’m not saying we should have no discernable values. On the contrary. I am saying that I agree with Rob Bell here in that just BECAUSE we have strong moral guidelines – Biblical guidelines – we are not necessarily called to FOIST those moral guidelines on those who are not yet a part of the Kingdom of God through a relationship with Jesus.
Real-life parallel: Isaac, our 10-year-old, made the Texas Rangers this year. Plymouth, MN, Little League style. His coach is a man’s man, a leader, and is all about developing disciplined young men of character who also happen to be outstanding ball players.
Games start at 6PM. Players need to be on the field at 5:10PM. Players who arrive at 5:12… sit. This is about Team values. It’s about being there when you’re told to be there. It’s about discipline.
As a Seminary student coming into the end of a crazy busy year, I haven’t been able to stay through every 2-hour game this season. Often I come in half way through the 3rd inning to cheer on the team. Never once has the coach chewed me out for lacking the proper degree of passion for the game or for having the wrong priorities. Why? Because I’m not on the Team. Now, I don’t enjoy the benefits of the Team either. If I jogged out to second base some game-day afternoon, expecting to cover the infield for the boys, Coach would have some direct words for me, I’m sure. But neither does he hold me accountable to the Team rules. When coach yells “Hustle!” between innings as the boys take their positions, he’s talking to the Team, not to me.
Too simple? I mean when we talk about morality and spiritual guidelines, aren’t there ETERNAL consequences on the line?
Yes. There are eternal souls at stake. So we better get this right. In fact, Paul clarifies in 1 Corinthians 5 that not only are we not to judge the unbelievers we rub shoulders with, we ought to intentionally build relationships with them. THAT is the Biblical plan. No bullhorns. Relationships. No contempt. Love. We are not the world’s moral police.
Save your judgement for those inside the church who call themselves “brothers,” but refuse to live by the Word and the Spirit. There is a place for judgement – within the relational family of the local congregation, where we sharpen each other in love, with humility, and with the goal of redemption. Look at 1 Corinthians 5:12-13…
“For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside.”
We can’t expect those who aren’t children of God to live like they are. If we do, we risk alienating wounded, broken, hurting people who are searching for peace and don’t know how to find it.
It is true that Peter’s message in Acts to the unbelieving crowd in Jerusalem pulled no punches. “You killed God. Repent…” he said. And it is also true that many spirit-led, Christ-honoring revivals have been sparked by the clear message, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.” I know this is true, and I don’t discount that God uses clear Law and Gospel preaching even to reach the hearts of strangers and outsiders who have never thought they would set foot in the door of a church. Sometimes, the Spirit leads, and the Law must be preached.
But I’m not talking about revival meetings and street-preaching miracles here. I’m talking about Thursday afternoon. I’m talking about work tomorrow. I’m talking about that guy who waits tables with you and is far more open about his personal romantic expoits than you’d ever want him to be. Those people don’t need policemen to fix them first. They need to be introduced to Jesus now – while they are yet sinners – because Jesus is pursuing relationship with them now. As long as it is called Today.
The Word and the Spirit will do their refining work on the hearts of those who are on the Team. But let’s not hold the crowd outside the fence to the Team standard. Let’s invite them onto the Team first.
I couldn’t breathe. I just sat in the pew next to her with my jaw clenched. There were eternal consequences here, I thought. I couldn’t belive this was happening. I could feel her retreating from the church – retreating from Jesus.
He was a potential candidate for the now vacant Senior Pastor position in the church where I served as the Worship and Arts director. He was being seriously considered for a call, and this was his day to preach.
She was a relative of a relative. Visiting our church. She NEVER went to church. But this was her day. Prayers, the Spirit, and circumstance brought her here. Could have been the most important day in her life, and she didn’t even know it. She was wounded, hurting, lost. She needed Jesus. She needed “Come to me, all who are weary…”
He was a jerk.
It is one thing to preach the Law in all of it’s sterness to awaken the souls of the complacent and pierce the hearts of the defiant IN ORDER THAT they might receive the life-giving Gospel truth: Jesus has already paid our penalty, we have hope, it is finished. It is another thing to revel in the preaching of the Law. To wield it like a clumsy weapon, clubbing the saints and the searching alike. As if guilt were a better indicator of healthy spiritual life than love.
I realized early in the message she would never come here again. Truth be told, I had decided early in the message that if he took the call, I would not come here again, either. But now I felt hope slipping away and angry walls being built, brick by brick. He was railing. Railing against those who would defile their body with tattoos. Spit in the face of God by piercing their bodies, His temple. Those who would wear their sin proudly like a badge of honor in their dark clothing and Doc Martin boots and heavy eye make-up. How shameful they were. How disgusting their vanity and rebellion must look to God.
She shifted uncomfortably, uncrossing her legs to lower her Doc Martins under the pew. Her plaid flannel sleeves weren’t long enough to cover the ink spilling down her forearm and onto her wrist. She was ashamed. Then she was angry. Then she was gone.
I have never – NEVER – forgotten the lesson of that day, but I’ve never written about it. Here I am in a Lutheran Seminary, learning how to divide all of scripture into two distinct categories: LAW and GOSPEL. God has given us the Law to kill our self-reliance and to point us to the cross. And as a fifth (sixth… more than that?) generation Lutheran, I’ve been taught that the Gospel without the Law is cheap grace. People need to be confronted with their sin before they are ready to receive the Gospel. True conversion involves repentance. We die to self before we are reborn.
That “but” has big implications. I have feared pushing against centuries of Lutheran orthodoxy and thousands of Spirit-led theologians who would warn me that in this regard, there are no “buts.” Law, then Gospel. LAW, then Gospel.
Sometimes, people already know they are broken. Sometimes, people are aware that they don’t measure up. Sometimes people come to church expecting God to view them the way this clumsy, angry, mean-spirited preacher viewed them. And to them Jesus says, “Come…”
Why is this? It is because He created us to be in a relationship with Himself, for His glory and our enjoyment. It is not unholy or selfish to seek to enjoy God. He crafted us with a longing to be satisfied. And NOTHING satisfies like the enjoyment of God Himself. As we express that enjoyment in worship, thanksgiving, service, obedience, and praise, God gets glory. And the two great longings in the universe are simultaneously met. Man hungers to be satisfied, God desires to be glorified. And God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.
So I look at the great God-story of the Bible. And I see how it all points to Jesus. And I believe it is the GREATEST truth in all of time – and that people everywhere need to hear it. And I look at the beginning of the story. And I see God there, “In the beginning…” And I see the beginning of man. And I notice something important…
Adam was created in God’s image, bearing His likeness in a personality and a desire for relationship… and God said it was very good. They walked together in the garden and had face-to-face relationship. It was very good. And this is the relationship mankind was created to have with God. This was God’s intent from the start, and it is His desire now.
And all of this is solidified before Genesis chapter 3.
Why is it we start out as preachers and street evangelists, wielding our bullhorns and pointing our fingers from the pulpits, and we start at Genesis chapter 3?
“She took of its fruit and ate, and she gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.”
It is true. Because of that day, and because of all of the days between then and now that man has spent serving himself instead of our gracious creator God, everybody takes their first breath on earth as a sinner. Disconnected from that “walk in the Garden… and it was very good” relationship. We are hopelessly broken and unable to make our way back to God. And that is why Jesus’ death on the cross is the centerpoint of history. And that is why people need Jesus – to be rescued from themselves. And that is why well-meaning evangelicals swing their clubs of condemnation. They want people who don’t even realize they need saving to be saved. So the Law must do its heart-breaking work. To break up the hard-packed earth of the hearts of men, so that the Gospel seed might take root and grow and bear much fruit.
Sometimes people are broken and they know it already. Must we always skip over the first two chapters of Genesis? Must it always be LAW, then Gospel?
The message I have heard for so many years often sounds like this… (1) You are a sinner. Your sin is ugly, and it separates you from God. There is nothing you can do to avoid eternal judgment. You are condemned by your sin. (2) Jesus came to pay the price for that sin. On the cross, your sin was crucified with Him. When he rose from the dead, He announced once and for all that forgiveness has triumphed. Because of Jesus, we are forgiven, and we can be with Him in heaven forever.
You know what? This isn’t the whole story. I submit that when we LEAD with the LAW, we beat up already wounded souls. Not every time. But often. Way too often. I propose proclaiming a message, over a lifetime of biblical preaching, that looks more like this:
(1) God loves you. He created you for a purpose. God is zealously pursuing a relationship with you, and He will rejoice over you when you turn to Him. This is what we are here for. To enjoy the love of God. God is a pursuing God, and you are made in His image. He wants to restore you to your created purpose.
(2) Sin mucked it all up. God is Holy and can’t be around sin. He is righteousness, and He cannot tolerate sin. Therefore, your sin separates you from Him, and nothing you can do can change that. You will never be “good enough” for God.
(3) In light of Genesis 1 & 2 – in light of your created purpose – God made a way to redeem your soul. Jesus death on the cross was payment for your sin. Repent of your selfishness and self-reliance. God has been pursuing you because He longs to be in relationship with you. Jesus is the answer. There is hope for even you.
Evangelicals will face judgment for the souls they have driven away from God with their clumsy handling of the Law.
Yes, the proud need to be broken. But not by us. By the truth of the Word and the work of the Holy Spirit. And not all who hear us preach believe they don’t need God in their life. Some come to hear because they simply have no idea how to find Him. Some come to hear because they already consider themselves a screw-up. Those people need to hear Jesus call, “Come, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest…” And they need to know God is pursuing them.
Some of you are clenching your jaw right now. You feel this is dangerous ground, and that I stand at the precipice of a slippery slope. We cannot soften the full weight of the Law. We cannot compromise. We cannot settle for “gospel-light” just because it’s what people want to hear.
I submit that your uncomfortability may come from the evangelical culture you have been steeped in. What I am saying is rooted in scripture. God created us as deeply valued sons, born with a purpose first. THEN sin broke the ideal. First God created and it was very good. THEN sin separated us from Him. Some people will reject God because the church FIRST reflects His judgment rather than His love. I believe more souls will be willing to hear the truth of their sin and their need for Jesus if they FIRST hear the truth that God loves them, considers them deeply valuable, and that he is pursuing a restored relationship with them out of his zealous love for us.
It’s not all about us. It’s about Him. And when more souls are saved, and more hearts are set free and restored to their created purpose, God receives more glory. He loved first. It has been this way since Genesis 1 and 2. Not just since the 3rd chapter, when we stood condemned by our sin.
So back to that day in the church pew, with my jaw clenched, and the tat-covered, lip-pierced girl sitting next to me…
I wonder what would have happened that day if the message surprised her, instead of confirming her suspicions. “Yep, I am rotten. Yep, the church is all about making sure I know that. Yep, I thought this would be uncomfortable. No way am I coming back to hear this stuff again.”
What would have happened if she would have heard how valuable she is to God? That there is hope for her, and that she has been created by a God who knows her personally with all of her failings and rebellion, and still pursues her.
Tomorrow (Friday, May 13), a number of Christians on Twitter will be using the hashtag #4Giveness to connect with those outside of the church who have been pushed away from God by His people. If this post resonnates with you, read this from my friend Chris Goforth, and join us tomorrow.
Too often the people of God have beaten people up with the Law as if WE don’t need it anymore, and it is meant to be applied as judgment to the sinners “out there.” Too often we have stiff-armed people, making the gospel difficult to reach by way of a long trail of guilt and shame. Jesus says “Come…” It is simple. It is very good.
It is time to tell people that God is loving God who is pursuing them.
Needless to say this seemed totally inappropriate. I wasn’t even talking to her.
“I am not! You always do this. Get out of my… No. YOU are the one who… No.”
I just want to get through this grocery line, man. Buy my bananas and loaf of bread and diet tonic water. I just want to get through the day without arguing with a crazy stranger. It’s kind of a goal.
“Stop it! Stop it!”
She’s not looking at me. She’s looking glassy-eyed straight ahead. This is at first a relief. Then it only ratchets up the weirdness. She’s not talking to me… but there’s no one else around… so…
“This conversation is over. I’m hanging up. Goodbye!”
*facepalm* BLUETOOTH. Couldn’t see the tiny receiver tucked into her ear under her hair. I don’t like it, man. The world is full of people talking to themselves, and it’s getting harder to tell who hears little voices in their ear because of technology and who hears voices because they’re a few pickles short of a jar. I’d like to propose that bluetooth earpieces come with a little stick that extends over your head with a small, tasteful bright orange flag flying, so as to alert the world that you are hip, not simply nuts.
So we’ve established that there is “bad” talking to yourself. If you’ve ever been around true (as in, non-bluetooth enabled) talking to yourself, we can agree… it’s unnerving.
But there is another kind of talking to yourself that I am sold-out for, passionate about. It’s the kind of crazy we need MORE of in our churches. Last month I wrote two posts on sermon preparation (here and here). One of my friends left a comment and shared this quote from John Calvin:
“If the preacher is not first preaching to himself, better that he falls on the steps of the pulpit and breaks his neck than preaches that sermon.”
Amen! I mean, as it applies to me. I wish no ill to befall my fellow pastors trying to serve their congregations with fresh insights from the Word of God week after week. I mean no harm to the Sunday School teachers who wrestle their gaggle of 13 fourth graders to attention each Sunday morning. In no way do I want injury to befall the bazillions of small group leaders who are trying to lead Bible studies week to week with no formal training, wondering if they are qualified to serve but gladly doing it anyway because they love Jesus.
I am you. All of you who handle the Word of God and try to share it’s power and insight with other people. So I’m writing as a fellow crazy person, believing that somehow God can use me and my limited intellect and wavering allegiance to teach His people. It’s crazy, because, who am I to be a leader, a teacher, an example? I’m a broken mess.
And therein lies the mystery and the genius of God’s Church. His Word is alive, and it speaks today. His Spirit is the true teacher. We human preachers and teachers and Bible study leaders… we’re just His servants, serving other servants. Not higher than. Not holier than. Side by side. All sinners in need of grace and all being reformed into Christ’s image for the sake of God’s reputation, not ous.
So as a fellow servant… who happens to teach the Bible some times… I want to let you know something about me.
I talk to myself.
I’m a rookie preacher, you know. A first year of Seminary under my belt in the next couple weeks. So as a preacher, I’m got a lot of learning to do. We all know the difference between a preacher who seems to be “up there,” just doing his own thing, and those preachers who are talking right to you. Like the Bible is piercing through the religious veneer and the “I’m at least as put-together as the guy next to me” front we wear to church, and messing with our heart itself. I only have one life, after all, and it’s already half spent. I don’t want to waste a minute giving random religious self help talks, or even disconnected exegetical Bible lessons that fail to pierce the fog between the pulpit and the pew.
I’m praying the the voice of God and the nearness of His Spirit are unmistakable when I preach. And that’s crazy. I’m nobody. But God uses nobodies all the time.
Maybe it’s because the “have-it-all-together” crowd doesn’t feel that reckless desperation for God to be behind the wheel. I don’t know. But I do know that God has tons of refining work to do in me. And the times, it seems, when my teaching makes the deepest impact or resonates with the greatest connection between my notes and the people facing me are the times when what I am teaching has grown out of a deep realization that God is working this truth out in ME. When His Word has broken through my walls and reached my inner self and shined the light on my dark corners… then I am ready to teach. When God has spoken to me, then I’m ready to speak to my fellow servants.
So if you’re me… a fellow teacher in the Kingdom, trying to rightly handle the Word of God and realizing how daunting that responsibility is, rember this:
It IS as crazy as you think it is that God would speak the truth of His Word through cracked pots like you and me. Lunatic fringe crazy. But that’s part of the genius of His plan. He knows that we’re a mess, and that leaves lots of room to teach us about His character and power and grace.
Don’t spend this one life you have making religious speeches. Get into the Word where God can break our heart and make it soar. Be moved and changed… and THEN teach. Not before. The church needs more preachers and teachers and Bible Study leaders who think it’s crazy that God would use them. That crazy keeps us desperate. And His power is made perfect in weakness, not in self-reliance. That’s why when I get get up in that pool of light in front of my friends and fellow servants, notes in one hand and Bible in the other, I pray and pray and I remember that I’m not up here simply to talk the talk in their direction…
“I know I’m right. And no, this isn’t an issue of excess pride. Scripture is clear. And yet, here you are, expressing what you think is a valid opinion to the contrary. No. Having a favorite ice cream flavor… THAT is an opinion. But this is in the Bible. This is indisputable. I’m right about this right here.”
Pick your favorite hot button theological issue. Or your strongest opinnion on church methodology. You know you’ve got one. Everybody’s got one. Now, stir up some of that internal tension… just picture your most vocal adversary on this issue and instert yourself into a conversation wherein you use the paragraph above. Got it?
Good. Now I’m sure you can rustle up your favorite verses that back up your point of view. Go ahead… access the memory banks. Take your sword from its scabbord. Good. Now are you ready to defend your ground? Steel yourself for conflict. Jude 1:3 tells us to contend for the faith. This is that moment. Are you up to the task?
You are now in the right frame of mind to read this post. I’m talking to you right now.
“A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Proverbs 15:1)
“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:18)
“I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one–as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.” (John 17:21)
“Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers.” (2 Timothy 2:14)
“And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome, butkind to everyone,able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponentswith gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth…” (2 Timothy 2:24-25)
A few months ago now, I saw a contentious theological discussion on Facebook in which someone made the comment, “Truth at all costs.” Really? At all costs? Like the eternal soul of your opponent? All costs? I immediately thought back to something a mentor of mine once said at a worship leadership conference…
“Sometimes I can just be SO RIGHT that I roll right over people… with the authority of the Lord. That crushes love. LOVE is the first commandment, not ‘thou shalt be right for my name’s sake.'”
I had this clever blog post all planned out. But I think it would better if you just read those verses above one more time. That’s really all I want to say. Yes, I belive in absolute truth, and I believe in living with strong convictions, and I know there is a time to confront and a time to contend. But without love, we’re just a clanging gong.
Yesterday I posted six sermon prep tips :: how i get ready to preach– a three minute drill on what I think through as I’m getting prepped for a message. I stuck to the “from the hip” format yesterday. It was my three minute answer to a Bible School student asking for pointers as he prepared his first sermon.
Today I want to follow my list up with an important seventh step (which, to be honest, should probably be #4). Let’s call it, “What’s your problem?”
Here’s what I mean. I walk a tightrope when I think about preaching. As a Seminary student I haven’t yet been in the position where I have to chart out a majority of the the preaching a schedule for a church over the course of a year. I have given several messages over my last sixteen years in ministry, but as a Worship and Executive Pastor, my teaching came as individual messages, or once in awhile in a series of two, back to back. Without the constraints of a preaching schedule, I have had the luxury of handpicking an issue or passage of scripture that was really resonating with me at that moment. This gave me the opportunity to dig into the Word and let God speak deeply to my heart in an area I was wrestling with. To use a common buzz word, this made the messages I was giving very relevant to me.
So what do I mean by walking a tightrope?
The joke in the Lutheran Seminary preaching classes I’ve been in this year is, “You can preach a topical message once a year… and then you go home and repent.”
And yet, TOPICAL preachers often choose to preach that way because they feel it makes their messages more RELEVANT to their congregation. That’s not a bad desire. The point of the joke is this: As preachers of THE WORD, our job is to exposit (draw meaning out of) the Bible. God’s Word has the power to change lives. We err when we start with our own ideas, and then use random passages from scripture out of context as “proof texts” to solidify our idea. The key phrase there being “OUR idea.” Currently I am on staff at Living Hope Church, where the preaching tends to be more topical. But I would contend that, done well, this form of preaching can be Spirit-filled and expository – illuminating truth from God that He has spoken about in a number of passages.
“Walking the tightrope” here means living in tension between Gospel-centric expository preaching, and relevant, topical expository preaching. As long as you are using a truly exegetical hermeneutic (taking truth FROM the text instead of using the text to support pre-determined ideology), I think that BOTH styles of preaching are Biblical, powerful, and effective… In fact, I would contend further that this is not an either/or discussion. I think you can (and should!) often do BOTH at the SAME TIME.
But we need to unpack this idea of “relevance” a little further. How many churches these days use “relevance” as a marketing buzz word? It’s everywhere. There is even a fascinating magazine targeting Christian 20 somethings called RELEVANT. I’m a subscriber. Not because I endorse everything in it, but because it is a great picture of how this generation of Christians thinks – about life, about God, about church. To them, “relevance” is a high priority. And often, “church as usual” feels like more of a religious hamster wheel than the forceful Kingdom-building, earth-changing, love-powered Body of Christ they want to be a part of.
To be honest, I understand that frustration. Since high school, I have OFTEN said, “I don’t want to play church.” NO WAY. I want to BE the CHURCH, and as a preacher, I pray the Holy Spirit works in power through me, to save souls and to stir the congregation of saints on to real LOVE and life-changing GOOD WORKS. But I don’t think that the desire for relevance comes from a lack of relevance in the Bible. That could hardly be farther from the truth.
Instead, whether or not messages are structured topically or as exegetical studies of a certain passage, our job as preachers is not to “make the text relevant” to our listeners. Instead, our job is to help them see HOW the text IS relevant for them. Right now. Today.
That leads me to me to my seventh (or fourth, if you insert it into my last post) tip for sermon prep… the one I’ve called, “What’s your problem?”
In his book Biblical Preaching, Pastor Haddon W. Robinson said, “Effective delivery begins with desires…” If you want to preach in a way that makes the message you are speaking immediately relevant, you need to ask yourself, “So, what?” In other words, “What desire in my listeners does this message address.” In other words, “Why does this matter?” In other words, “What are the consequences of these people NOT hearing this message?” In other words, “What problem in the lives of these people does this message from God seek to address?”
In other words, “What is your problem?”
Note that I’m not suggesting you start with a problem and then scramble to find texts to support your best answer. Rather, I’m suggesting starting with a text, and asking “What problem is this text addressing?” And you know what? Jesus is going to be in the center of that tension. The cross is going to be in the center of that solution.
As I’m prepping a message, and I want to make sure it comes across to people as a relevant, right-now message for them to hear and absorb and respond to today, I ask myself, “What’s your problem?” And then I make sure to highlight that tension and give them a solution by message end.
To review then, here’s the updated sermon prep list, including this extra seventh bullet point that I felt required a bit more discussion. Feel free to add to these (or challenge me if you think I’m off my rocker) in the comments below…
Sermon Preparation Tips
(1) PRAY! It’s God talking, not you.
(2) Identify your target. Believers? Not?
(3) Figure out the BIG IDEA of the text (The main thing you think God is saying here in one sentence).
(4) Keep it relevant – ask “What’s your problem?” and then make sure you provide a solution from the text.
(5) Make sure you are saying what the text says, not using it to prove your own ideas.
(6) Think about the “KNOW, FEEL, and DO” before you write it out:
(7) Make sure you include both LAW (our need for God) and GOSPEL (God’s solution in Jesus) in EVERY message.
This weekend I ran into Ben, a friend of mine from the Association Free Lutheran Bible School, which shares a campus with the Seminary where I currently live and study. He was preparing to preach his first sermon and asked me if I had any pointers in getting prepped.
I had about 3 minutes.
So I grabbed his yellow notebook and shot from the hip. I’m sure, given unlimited time and an endless supply of warm chocolate chip cookies, I could have done a better job. This will have to do for now. Here is the fast, cookie-free version:
(1) PRAY! It’s God talking, not you. :: I think preachers forget sometimes that the Word of God has said enough. Our job is to preach with the help of the Holy Spirit so that our congregations understand what God is saying to them. This, then, is not so much an opportunity to support OUR ideas with scripture, but to help make GOD’s ideas understandable and connected to the real life of the people listening.
(2) Identify your target. Believers? Not? :: This is common sense on one level, but is easily forgotten… and the ramifications carry some weight. Before you can communicate effectively, you need to know your audience. Some passages in scripture speak to the unforgiven. Some passages challenge, strengthen, or encourage the already convinced. Some passages speak to both. Before you preach, figure out what God is calling you to say AND who he is calling you to speak it to.
(3) Figure out the BIG IDEA of the text (The main thing you think God is saying here in one sentence). :: A number of teachers whom I admire have said this before: most of the time, you will communicate most clearly by saying one thing well. When I’m prepping a message, it helps me stay focused and clear to carefully craft my BIG IDEA before I begin writing the message.
(4) Make sure you are saying what the text says, not using it to prove your own ideas. :: No explanation needed.
(5) Think about these three things BEFORE you write it out:
(A) KNOW = At the end of your message, what do you want people to know? It helps me to restate my most important point using, “At the end of the message, I want people to know that ______________________.”
(B) FEEL = Yes, Lutherans can feel things. Have you seen the Vikings fans when Green Bay is in town? Right. We can even feel deeply in church without compromising our spiritual integrity. So I think it is appropriate to think ahead of time about how you expect people will FEEL as you deliver this message. Encouraged? Celebratory? Reflective?
(C) DO = As a response to this message, is there something you’re asking them to DO? It is important to remember that religiously motivated action that isn’t a genuine worship RESPONSE to what God has done for us is simply legalism. I do think it is appropriate sometimes to suggest a specific responsive action – to ask them to DO something – but we must always make it an option, a suggestion, wrapped in the grace of God and a reminder that we love because He first loved us.
(6) Make sure you include both LAW (our need for God) and GOSPEL (God’s solution in Jesus) in EVERY message. :: I know… my Lutheranosity is showing. This does not mean we have to shoehorn anything into the text. The Bible always will point us to Jesus. Cover to cover. The whole Bible points to and helps us understand the centerpiece of all of history: Jesus redemptive sacrifice on the cross as a propitiation for our sins.
Perhaps there’s hope. He’s only seven. So I figure I have 11 more years with him under my roof, where his very food and shelter may be leveraged in the shaping of his character.
Levi Kyle is our precocious, out-spoken, Type-A+, heart-on-his-sleeve, leader-in-training, seven-year-old tornado-on-wheels of a boy. He says what he thinks. All the time. I love that kid so much.
Where little girls (from what I’m told) only ripen into ever-increasing layers of complexity and emotional nuance, we are the parents of BOYS. There’s not so much nuanced about their snips and snails and puppy dog tails. And Levi has been endowed with an extra measure of boy-ness from His creator. What Levi thinks comes out his face in a rush. We’re working on it.
One of the blessings of people with a Levi-like personality is the immediacy with which you know exactly what they are thinking. Whether solicited or not, you will get their opinion on the matter. Whatever is the matter in the moment. So listening to Levi as he grows up is an open window to his character development. It’s fascinating. Equal parts thrilling, comedic, and on occasion… a little unnerving.
“Dad, I want a credit card.”
“You have to be older. They won’t give you a credit card. It’s a big responsibility.”
“What’s the big deal? You just give people your credit card, and they give you whatever you want. Easy.”
“Right. But then you have to pay for that stuff.”
“WHAT?! It’s NOT FAIR.”
Not fair. Nice. I’m a failure.
I’ve written before about Levi beforeand one of the most important values we are trying to instill in our kids… GRATEFULNESS. I firmly believe that beyond a dynamic relationship with God through Jesus Christ, the most powerful indicator of happiness through this one go-round we have on the planet is the degree to which we embrace and practice the value of gratefulness. Or thanksgiving. Or gratitude. Call it what you will, but that right there is at the top of my list as Dad. I want to raise sons who are deeply grateful – for their life and breath, for their freedom, for the forgiveness of sins and the inheritance in heaven which we don’t deserve, for their future spouses, and for every cookie and every cup of coffee and every soul with which we have the privilege of interacting. To embrace life to the full (John 10:10) and to be joyful always, full of thanksgiving. For EVERY good thing. THAT is what it means to live truly deeply profoundly happy. And I want that for my boys.
“When you get your driver’s license , do they give you a free car?”
“No. You have to buy it.”
I’m failing here. See, the opposite of gratefulness isn’t indifference. You might think that. How many people do you know who walk around and breathe the air and take in the sunsets and drink their coffee and haul their kids to soccer practice without a shred of “thank you God for this moment”? Honestly, how many times has that been ME? How many times just today?
But that kind of non-acknowledgement isn’t the opposite of gratitude. The opposite of thanksgiving is ENTITLEMENT.
He’s only seven. I’m going to cut the kid a lot of slack. For now.
But Levi, and the rest of us, need to constantly be reminded that every blessing is a gift. And there is a Giver. And the Giver pours out blessing like rain upon the redeemed, the searching, and the hostile. Even more, he has given us energy and creativity and the freedom to EARN even more blessing – like that shiny new car Levi expects to be granted unto him with no real investment of time or sweat.
Well dude, I’ll give you some grace. You’re only seven. But we’ve gotta get a handle on this entitlement stuff. From now on, you will understand the value of that PBJ you ate for lunch and the IKEA bunk bed in which you wrap up at night. According to a June 18 US NEWS article, the cost of raising a child to age 18 is roughly $222,360. If I’ve done the math correctly, in your seven short years you’ve already cost us $86,473.
There are three ways the church can respond to culture. And by “culture,” I mean normal walking-around life, surrounded by the contemporary marketplace of ideas, ideologies, philosophies, marketing, goods and services, media and entertainment. It’s “the world” in big huge air quotes (picture me talking more slowly and wiggling two fingers on either side of my face when I say that…) that we’re supposed to be “IN” but not “OF.” Culture.
Is it evil? Is it just our present reality – kind of a blank slate we’ve been handed to paint our redemption story on? Is it a war zone? Is it a playground? The church has to decide, because millions of souls are walking around in it. Many are curious and hungry – wanting there to be some peace of mind and freedom and meaning in our churches. Some are hostile. Enemy combatants. Many, many more are disinterested. I believe those souls all need Jesus, and if you believe that, too, you have to think through the options when it comes to culture. We’re surrounded. How are we going to engage or stave off or reach out to the souls we encounter in this space we call CULTURE?
Again, I believe the Church has three options:
(1) RECEIVE :: Blue jeans, iPhones, microwave ovens, Facebook, John Mayer (A true artist), “Finding Nemo,” LifeTime Fitness, Cold Stone ice cream, email… there are many blessings of modernity that can be enjoyed without compromising Biblical values or threatening to undermine our moral standards. These are things the church can RECEIVE, grateful to God for the enjoyment and blessing they bring to our lives.
(2) REJECT :: Illicit drugs, pornography, vulgar language, John Mayer (not ALL of his songs are innocuous), alcohol abuse, racism, rampant consumerism, Burger King breakfast food… there are many parts of modern culture that have no place in the life of a believer. Either they ascribe and proclaim anti-Biblical messages, or promote sin as acceptable or normative, or they taste like bacos and Velveeta rolled in salt with a side of salt and extra salt. All of these parts of culture must be rejected.
(3) REDEEM :: And now, the rubber meets the road. We reflect God’s nature when we take what has been stolen or broken by sin and the devil and redeem it to glorify the Lord. Much of the technology, communication tools, trends, artistic efforts, etc., of modernity can be creatively and effectively REDEEMED by the church if we are willing to pray, use our imaginations, and have the courage to be IN but not OF. Social media, contemporary music, marketing tools, John Mayer (in the right setting… absolutely), film and multi-media, theater and dance, Braveheart… The church can harness much of the culture around us and “re-brand it” for Kingdom purposes as a reflection of the Redeemer God who is pursing us – to remake us again in His image.
The church must decide.
To throw out all of culture (sure, that’s hyperbole, but you know the churches I’m talking about) is to be “OUT OF and NOT OF.” Easy. Safe, maybe. But not impacting the culture. Or saving souls.
To embrace all of culture (sure, that’s hyperbole… but you know the churches I’m talking about) is to be “IN AND OF.” Also easy. Not safe though. And in like manner as its opposite extreme… not impacting culture. Or, many times, truly saving souls.
To parse all of culture on an ongoing basis is NOT easy. Nor is it always safe. But prayerful, carefully discerned cultural REDEMPTION actually DOES have the potential to change culture. And souls who would otherwise write off church as irrelevant might be willing to come in and take a look. And if they come in the door, they have the potential of hearing the life-changing Word of God which convicts of sin and rescues to hopeless and broken-hearted.
Where local churches fall on these issues becomes a matter of conviction, often dividing believers from one another along cultural boundaries instead of theological ones. To borrow a metaphor from my brother Mark Driscoll, we need to be clear on the theological difference between our “State” and “National” boundaries.
Mark says that “state” boundaries are those stylistic and secondary theological issues that often divide evangelical denominations one from another. Baptists might not like social dancing, but that’s not such a big deal to Lutherans… as long as Toby Mac and Casting Crowns are in the DJ’s play list. Some sprinkle their new babies, and some only dunk the professing believers. Some think we’ll be snatched up “Jerry Jenkins style” at the Rapture when Jesus comes back, and others think we all have to endure the fury of the end times first. Some like Southern Gospel. I know. Hard to believe. But it’s true.
These are the “State” boundaries, theologically speaking. We’re not pulling out the heavy artillery to launch a full scale assault on North Dakota. Don’t get me wrong… we’re glad to be Minnesotans. But we embrace our wind-swept brothers as perhaps lesser fortunate, yet fully embraced Midwesterners. Like us.
But if you press us on the core stuff – Christ’s divinity, the Bible’s inerrancy and authority on all matters of faith, the universality of sin, the exclusivity of the cross as the only path to God – these are “National” boundary lines, and they are worth contending for. If Canada ever sends a sortie of heavily armed mounties across the line at Biwabik or International Falls, those hosers are going down, eh?
Contending for the faith, after all, is a Biblical idea (Jude 1:3). But it stands in balance with passages like John 17, where Jesus prays to His Father, asking God that we (all believers) would be ONE, just as He and the Father are ONE. And contending for the faith also stands in tension with Romans 12:8, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” We can’t abide assaults on the primary biblical tenets that make the Gospel unique among all the religions of the world. But we can agree to disagree on those state-to-state issues that don’t threaten the clear teaching of the one way to reunion with God – faith in the grace of Jesus alone for the forgiveness of our sins.
So here we are. In Minnesota. We keep an open border with our North Dakotan brothers. They do produce some tasty spuds in the Red River Valley, after all. And we keep a wary eye on those Canadian insurgents who would press across our border, threatening our very American-ness with their alternative rock bands, rugged natural beauty, and generally friendly disposition. Oh yeah… and with their summertime combination of plaid shorts and long black socks. We can’t stand for it!
The point is, local church, you must decide. When it comes to culture, what must we reject, what can we receive, and what can we REDEEM for God’s glory? I hope to be crystal clear on those first two, and to relish the third whenever possible. And in the process, forgive me if I ever fire on a North Dakotan brother.