Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Being Interesting 08 - Ten Minutes

Just a quick piece of advise:

Your listeners are conditioned by television to the point that they really only have an attention span that is, in total, about the length of a TV episode (22 minutes). Along with this, they are used to segments that are about 10 minutes long. This means if you don't do something about once every 10 minutes that jars them back to what you're doing (like a commercial break), they're going to be drifting off.

I was reading recently that the average American adult typically gets distracted at work about once every 2 minutes. What's worse (and I've found this to be true in my case), if they don't get distracted in 2 minutes, they will actually find a way to distract themselves. There were preachers of the past who could use lots of dry logic and long quotations, reasoning for hours and hours to a captivated audience. Those were marvelous times, but they aren't the times where we're living.

It is worth doing something to change directions or pace about once every ten minutes. This is also why I prefer not to make lots of bland introductory comments. I know that the moment I begin to speak, my clock is already ticking. It's better to engage them while they're still listening, rather than to use up their attention spans announcing what they already know about the weather.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Harding's New Oglesby Preaching Studio

Harding University has recently added a new state-of-the-art preaching studio. It is a decent sized room, set up much like a contemporary church auditorium. I have personally been really concerned with the shortage of preachers in churches of Christ, though I know the problem isn't unique to us. This new studio was paid for by the Waterview Church of Christ in Richardson, TX, and it is named the Oglesby Preaching Studio in honor of Robert K. Oglesby, a long time minister at their congregation. I appreciate Harding trying to place an emphasis on this important area. It's good to communicate that preaching is something that is cherished and is worth putting resources into. I also commend the Waterview congregation for making this needed area such a priority.

Here is a link to the news article.

Here are some pictures that my dear friend Bruce McLarty, VP of Spiritual Life, sent to me when I asked him about it:

Being Interesting 07 - Reduce the Application Scope

When you are trying to really bring the point of your lesson home to be in the hearts and lives of your listeners, you should do it in ways that they can actually utilize. Too often, I have heard people overextend an application to the point that it's no longer applicable.

Here are some examples:
- In a lesson about being evangelistic, one guy made a lot of valid and motivating points, then concluded by saying, "We need to be reaching out to our friends and family, but it doesn't stop there. It isn't good enough to just be reaching to our city, or our nations...Jesus wants us to reach the entire world! We've got to be going for the whole world!" Certainly, reaching the whole world is our goal. I'm a big believer in churches using more than one worship service a year to emphasize supported mission works. But when your lesson is geared toward people who are presently living nearby, and thinking more about what they're going to do this week, it would be more productive to give them better insights for reaching their friends, rather than burdening them with a task that you don't realistically expect any of you to tackle in the next week.

- In a class that was supposed to be about drugs and substance abuse, the class started off discussing narcotics, and then began to spiral downward. "Well, really, a lot of things are drugs. If you want to get technical, nicotine is a drug. Caffeine is a drug. Chocolate is a drug. And for some people, power is a drug..." They went on and on ad infinitum to the point that there is absolutely nothing that isn't a drug, and therefore, the discussion became too broad to be useful. If we're all drug users in some way, then it relieves us of the burden to be an example or to hold others accountable.

I think your listeners find it much more helpful when the application of the message is brought down into achievable baby steps, chipping away at a larger goal, rather than just loading them up with an impossible task. Rather than guy #1 moving from friends and family to the entire world, he should have done it in reverse. "Christ wants to reach the whole world with the Gospel. We want to do our part in achieving His vision by reaching out with love to our own community. We want our friends and family to be part of God's family. We want lives to be changed here in our congregation, letting God work through our hands and our words."

If you want people to take your application seriously, make it something they can actually do.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Being Interesting 06 - Don't Rush It

When I first started preaching, I was always trying to find weird and unconventional passages to look at. I thought everyone had probably heard the story of the Prodigal Son to the point that they were wishing the kid would run off again, just to make it juicier. And then one time I heard a preacher who said (my paraphrase), "You don't have to go hunting around the back half of Zephaniah to find a text that is helpful and refreshing. The reason that we tend to use and re-use certain passages is because they are so effective at speaking to us in meaningful ways. It's ok to preach from a familiar passage."

When I heard it, I heaved a sigh of relief. It really is ok to talk to people about something they've heard before.

But similar to this, I think there's a different fault that we often commit. That is, every time you reference a familiar story, you just say, "You all know the story of....", then you suck the point out of it. It's like the old poem about Little Jack Horner:
Little Jack Horner
Sat in the corner,
Eating a Christmas pie;
He put in his thumb,
And pulled out a plum,
And said 'What a good boy am I!'
When we go ahead and pull out the plumb we are wanting, we are robbing our audience of the experience of reliving the story.

I think another flaw in this approach is the assumption that all our listeners are biblically literate. I am regularly shocked at just how little most people--even Christians--know about the Bible. I think some of the most powerful stories in the Bible, such as the Creation narrative and Noah's experience with the flood, are often overlooked as kid stories. We think, "I learned about that when I was little," and we never give it a serious hearing.

I think good preaching is textually-centered preaching. We need to chew on each verse as if it were a high dollar steak from Ruth's Chris.

If we really help people to re-live and re-explore passages, whether they are familiar or not, our sermons will become more engaging. I would encourage preachers to slow down. Rather than referencing 3 or 4 parables as quick illustrations of a point, why not really live in one of the parables for a sermon? Even if they've heard it before, help them to see it through new eyes. As our situation in life changes, our perspective changes. This is why we can read the Bible through year after year and still hear it in ways that we've never experienced before.

So for now, slow it down. Spend time in the text and allow it to be your authority, whether it is familiar or not.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

For Mother's Day: Things Mom Would Never Say

"How on earth can you see the TV sitting so far back?"
"Yeah, I used to skip school a lot, too."
"Just leave all the lights on ... it makes the house look more cheery."
"Let me smell that shirt -- Yeah, it's good for another week."
"Go ahead and keep that stray dog, honey. I'll be glad to feed and walk him every day."
"Well, if Ron's mamma says it's okay, that's good enough for me."
"The curfew is just a general time to shoot for. It's not like I'm running a prison around here."
"I don't have a tissue with me ... just use your sleeve."
"Don't bother wearing a jacket - the wind-chill is bound to improve."

Happy Mother's Day!

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

A Christian Guide to Not Being A Jerk On The Internet

My friend Justin Lewis shared this on Facebook. It is well worth reading and thinking about. I see an awful lot of etiquette (and lack of it) that really bothers me some of the time. Christians need to be wise about both what we say and how we say it.

Being Interesting 05 - The Value of Mystery

There is an old bit of advice that I've heard from a lot of places. One surprising place was on Conan's show, where he mentioned that Jerry Lewis gave him this advice as the key to success in show business. The advice is this:
When performing for a crowd, (1) tell them what you're going to do/say, (2) do/say it, (3) tell them it has been done.
For a juggling or sword swallowing trick, this is probably just fine. But I've also heard people say this is what you should do with your sermons. Begin with, "My sermon is titled: _____. Today I will give you 3 reasons why ____." Next, give them your 3 reasons, clearly identifying each point, one at a time. Finally, recap all three reasons, letting them know you have done it. In other words: Tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you've told them.

This method is clearly organized, but I also think it can become boring and predictable if the speaker doesn't have some good material to keep the listeners interested. I've really had to watch myself in this regard when I listen to other preachers. If you tell me what the title of your sermon is, I already think I know part of where you're going with it. If you give me point #1 and I agree with it, I tend to go ahead and shut my ears off, and often find myself reading through a biblical text or daydreaming until point #2 comes around. Depending on whether I agree or disagree with point #2, I feel free to tune in or tune out. If your audience is capable of mentally jumping ahead of you, a lot of times they will (or at least, INTJs like me will).

David Fleer once compared this approach to walking through a house, pointing out every time you encountered a wall, door, window, or stair. "This here is the living room door that we're walking through." "These here are stairs that we're going down." We don't do that in real life; we just go through the door, or walk down the stairs. It isn't necessary to always explain what you're doing because if you do it well enough, your audience will stay with you. There are certainly sermons more information-driven where clarity is imperative and this is the better approach. But much of the time, I'm convinced other approaches are more captivating.

I say all this to say that I believe there are few things more intrinsically interesting than mystery. At this point, I do not use title slides in my sermons at all. I do not introduce what I'm going to be speaking about, and I certainly don't tell them what all to expect. I don't even spend 3 or 4 minutes on the niceties of "So glad you're here today," or "Good to see so many visitors." I try to get down to business fairly quickly, and it is often my goal that for about the first ten minutes, my audience is thinking, "Where exactly is he going with all of this?" Hopefully, by the end of the lesson I have succeed and they can see how it all fit together (I do eventually try to make some clear points). But I want them fully engaged with me during the entire process.

I think there is a lot of wisdom in Fred Craddock's inductive method. Rather than giving a point and saying, "Here are a few reasons I believe it to be true," like a lawyer, it is better to work like a detective. Gather clues as if you are encountering them for the first time. Think out loud. Let them discover the reasons with you along the way, and by the time you get to making your point, they'll be wanting to help you make it, because they have discovered the same thing in the process. Fred Craddock is even bolder than I am in that he often never even states his main point, trusting the audience to reach it on their own.

If you can give people something to try and figure out, you'll hold their attention. Don't be too quick to lay all your cards on the table.