Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Meaningful Life

Marcus Borgman, quoted by Randy Harris, lists a few statements that you should be able truthfully to say often. If you can't say these things much of the time, it is likely you could be doing much better with your life:

There’s no other place I’d rather be.
There’s nothing I’d rather be doing.
There’s no one else I’d rather be with.
I’ll remember this.

Being Interesting 04 - The Excluded Middle

There is a classic missions article from Paul Hiebert called, "The Flaw of the Excluded Middle," that I think has some real value for Westerners. In our Western mindset, we have categories for things that are transcendent and we have categories for things that are empirical. Religion speaks to one, and Science speaks to the other, and never the twain shall meet.

But in much of the world, along with having these two categories, there is also a middle category. Many peoples of the world still believe actively in ghosts, evil spirits, and in supernatural explanations for things we would explain scientifically. When a missionary from the West is approached by a tribal African to use prayer to heal their child's disease, the missionary often doesn't know what to do. The end result is that many Christian converts in non-Western nations still consult witch doctors to help with a number of pragmatic things, because the missionaries will either have no response, or will deny the existence of whatever the convert feels is a threat or problem. (There are no ghosts...the sickness isn't because of a spirit...etc.)

I'll quote a couple of paragraphs from Hiebert about this middle area of experience:
On the middle level, a holistic theology includes a theology of God in human history: in the affairs of nations, of peoples and of individuals. This must include a theology of divine guidance, provision and healing; of ancestors, spirits and invisible powers of this world; and of suffering, misfortune and death.
On this level, some sections of the church have turned to doctrines of saints as intermediaries between God and humans. Others have turned to doctrines of the Holy Spirit to show God's active involvement in the events of human history. It is no coincidence that many of the most successful missions have provided some form of Christian answer to middle level questions.
I think most of us ministering to Westerners don't have any people actively worried about displeasing the ghosts of their ancestors (unless you are ministering to Glenn Beck--ha!). But there is something to be said for reflecting on what the middle areas are in our culture.

We tend to talk about God entirely in theological terms. When we speak about history, if its biblical history, we see God hard at work. If it's U.S. History, we have no paradigm for how to speak about the involvement of God in any of what we're doing.

But I do think it makes for good sermons when we speak about God at work in our time, in our lives, and in our communities of faith. In your sermons, don't separate the "theological" from the "practical". Theology, if it is done right, ought to affect everything else. If Jesus is Lord, then he is Lord of all parts of our lives. If God is not at work in our churches, then what are we doing anyway? Let's embrace a worldview that God is active now, and not just in the ancient past or in the distant future. I've found that people feel really empowered when you as a leader will stand up and boldly proclaim the actions of God in the world, and envision what else God can do in your own setting through your own hands. If that isn't relevant, then what is?

Incidentally, Patrick of Ireland was great at ministering to the middle area. There is an old Irish prayer for just about every aspect of a person's life, from getting up, to working, to eating, to laying down at night. If you've never had a look at the Carmina Gadelica--a collection of old Irish religious prayers and poetry, it is worth your time (and it's cheap on Kindle!).

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Being Interesting 03 - How To Order Multiple Illustrations

This is a practical piece of advice I got from David Fleer. If you ever have multiple illustrations for a single point, you should always order them from smallest to largest. What happens is that when the ear has heard one illustration, whenever you start into another one, the brain says, "This will be at least as long as the previous one."

If you start out with a really long illustration, then go into another, people's ears will instantly shut down. They'll be thinking, "I don't want to sit through another one of those just yet." But if you start with the smaller one, then move to the bigger one(s), it will work better for your listener.

So if you had a good quick joke, a one-line quote, and a short story, the best order would be (1) one line quote, (2) quick joke, and (3) short story. It doesn't matter which is the best of the bunch, because if your quick joke is your best one, but it is after a longer one, no one will still be listening to hear it. And if they are listening, they'll feel tired.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Being Interesting 02 - Tension and Release

I'm an avid lover of music. I think what makes really good music are the dynamics of a song. When the music builds or falls along with the content of the lyrics, it just feels right. Most any good melody somehow ends on the root note of whatever key of the song is. Everything up until the root hits is the anticipation of that resolution. Sometimes we know what note is supposed to come next, even if we've never heard the song. Think of all the dynamics in "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen. There are the varying types of music, there is the loudness and softness, the fastness and slowness. It all weaves together into an experience that leaves you feeling satisfied.

Likewise, every movie that keeps you on the edge of your seat has some sort of tension that needs to be resolved. The greater the tension, the more satisfactory the conclusion. Or at least, the more potential for satisfaction the conclusion will have available.

I have found that creating tension in the progression of a sermon works just as well. If you have a really good story that illustrates your main point, rather than tell it all at one point, try splitting it in half. Tell enough of it to let them get attached to what is going on, but don't give them "the rest of the story" until you've finished working through the other material. Even better, don't tell them there is any more to the story. It is difficult to restrain yourself from giving away the rest, but if you can hold on to it, it will pay off.

I did this several weeks ago, and was amazed how effective it was. Long story short: when I was teaching at Harding, I had a student who was a new Christian, and wanted to study the Bible with his dad. He was short on cash, so I helped him purchase a Bible for his dad, shortly before we moved to Tennessee. About two years later, I got a Facebook message from this student, telling me that he had just baptized his father, having studied with him using the Bible I helped him purchase. It was an experience that I wouldn't trade for anything in the world, and I am still moved to tears thinking about it.

The way I used this was to tell the story up until the part where I bought him the Bible and we moved away. I talked about my regret in having to move, but my trust that God would continue to work in that situation, even if I couldn't be physically there any more. After I was done making my other points, at the very end of the sermon, I said, "Do you remember the student I told you about? I got a message from him I want to let you hear..."

What was cool was how so many people came up to me and said, "I just KNEW there was more to that story!" That tells me that it kept them plugged in, but it also told me what a terrible blunder it would have been to create the tension without giving them the resolution.

If used properly, I think sermons that utilize tension and release can provide extremely engaging experiences for the listeners.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Positive Comments from a Methodist about Churches of Christ

Dr. Oster from the Harding Grad School shared this article on Facebook. For obvious reasons, I absolutely loved it. I think we have a lot of positive things to offer, and I personally don't get the zeal I'm seeing in my peers to throw away a lot of the aspects that make us unique among Christian movements.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Being Interesting 01 - Sensory Language

In telling a story, I think a primary goal is to get your audience to feel connected to the situation. I think a great way to do this is to specifically talk about what the audience would gather through their senses in the encounter; particularly the sense of smell, which is a very strong memory device.

A good example would be John 5.

A bland way to describe the Pool of Bethesda:
Bethesda was a pool of water located near the Sheep gate. It was surrounded by five columns. There was a large number of invalid and unhealthy people who always stayed around the pool. They believed a legend that when the pool waters stirred, presumably by an angel, the first one into the pool would be healed.
A more interesting way to describe the Pool of Bethesda:
As Jesus and his disciples walked the roads of Jerusalem, then ended up near the Sheep Gate, at a pool called Bethesda. If you were to go to Bethesda, you could smell it before you could see it. It was a place of sickness and sadness. Walking past each of the five columns around it, you would see people huddled in their shade, trying to avoid the scorching sun. There was the constant tension, pushing and shoving. Countless people who were blind, lame, and paralyzed laid there trembling with anticipation that maybe, just maybe, today would be their day to get in first. You see, they were clinging to a legend that when the waters stirred, the first one to get in would be healed. But with eyes that couldn't see and legs that couldn't carry them there, what hope did they have of being first? Even more, was their hope in this pool an empty wish to begin with?
In this particular passage, there is some great stuff you could do with the details about the man who had been an invalid for 38 years. Look at current events from 38 years ago, and walk a person through all that someone would have lived through in our own history in 38 years time.

But I think the story really comes to life when they can smell the stench, when the heat burns their skin, and when they experience the hopelessness of never being first.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Being Interesting

I don't pretend to be the world's greatest speaker, nor do I think I'm even in the running. But I do a lot of speaking and presenting, and over time, I've found certain approaches that have helped me to improve at connecting with my audiences. It's been a while since I've done a blog series, so I thought it would be worthwhile to make a few small posts about some things I keep in mind as I speak and present. These will certainly be applicable for preachers, but I think many will have uses beyond the pulpit. As always, I'll welcome your input.