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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

MLK's Powerful Practices for Preachers

The Christian preaching of MLK Jr. didn’t merely inspire a congregation, which would be no small task; it inspired a movement, the Civil Rights Movement. It wouldn’t be stretch to assert that King’s preaching was the primary, if not sole, initiator of social transformation in America during the 1960’s.

Although the zenith of King’s preaching sits on a mountaintop that is more than a half century in the distance behind us, there is so much that contemporary preachers can learn from “the Preacher King” and employ today. And, who knows, maybe the Holy Spirit will use our preaching, like he did King’s, to bring about the social transformation so many of us crave.

Whole volumes have been written on the powerful preaching practices of King. Most of those are worth the time and money. In this brief article, however, I will sketch out only four of those practices. We will explore how these practices are evident in King’s Dream Speech, in particular, but they are unmistakably mixed into the corpus of his best sermons.

Know Your Context: King was a man of his time. He had a pulse on what was going on in his congregation, community, region, nation, and world. One gets the sense from hearing King preach that he thought and prayed long and hard about how a given biblical text or topic might intersect with the hopes and hurts of people in his day and age. Sermons, at least the best ones, are not only true to the biblical text but to the contemporary context in which they are proclaimed. One of the ways to tell that a sermon is highly contextual is that it will not be nearly as powerful if preached the same way in a different context.

King preached powerfully to the historical situation of his day. In the Dream Speech he said, “It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.” King himself discerned the “urgency of the moment” in his contextual preaching. He read broadly, conversed with a diversity of people, and, then, put the Gospel in a contextual container from which the people of his day could drink.

After you exegete the text for the sermon, spend a faithful amount of time prayerfully reflecting on how the text intersects with what is going on in the lives of people in your congregation, community, region, nation and world. Your best illustrations and applications will surface from this interface between text and context.

Develop A Mantra: Most college and seminary professors “preach” to students about the laziness and ineloquence of repetition in academic writing. “Don’t say the same thing the same way twice,” they beg. Perhaps that’s a wise practice for writing, but not for preaching, as King proves. He carefully crafted and repeated mantras with significant impact. The most famous mantras from the Dream Speech are, “I have a dream” and “let freedom ring.” These mantras still evoke passion and reflection today. Another mantra in the Dream Speech, and one that doesn’t get as much notice, is “we can never be satisfied” with the status quo of segregation.

When you finish writing your sermon, read through it several times looking for a phrase or sentence that captures the essence, or focus, of the sermon. Then, identify the best locations in the sermon to repeat the mantra. There is no hard and fast rule regarding how often to repeat the mantra, but 4-6 times in rapid succession or 7-10 times spread out are good rules of thumb.

Offer Winsome Challenge: King had the capacity, like the Christ he proclaimed, to speak hard truth with delightful grace. Jesus “came from the Father full of grace and truth” (John 1:14), and all truly Christian preaching will embody the same. King courageously challenged the injustices of his day without softening the blow of his words. He voiced in the Dream Speech:

“But one hundred years later [after the abolition of slavery in America], the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize an shameful condition.”

King challenged but also found a way to connect with people on the opposite side of an issue from him. Although many whites and some blacks didn’t agree with his message or tactics, they could not deny, and were often won over, by King’s winsomeness. Here is a snippet of winsome grace from the Dream Speech:

“And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

The hard, brutal truth that King shared was sifted through his love for people and God. Winsome messages can come across as fluff. Challenging messages can come across as angry. Try to embody winsome challenge, or grace and truth, in the development and delivery of your next sermon. As you read through your upcoming message, ask yourself “Does this need more grace or truth, more winsomeness or challenge?” Then, add a dash of either or both. Your delivery demeanor may also need one or the other or both. Watching the delivery of your sermon, as painful as that may be for some of us, can reveal if we need more grace and/or truth.

Employ A Metaphor: King was, well, a king at imagery. He used the metaphor of a dream, a mountaintop, and a bad check in his Dream Speech. King found a way to concretize concepts so that they were hard to forget. Metaphorical imagery imprints ideas on the heads and hearts of human beings. King knew this and employed it with noteworthy impact.

So much of what we preach about is conceptual at best and downright esoteric at worst. Listeners often get lost in a sea of ambiguous ideas. We flesh out these ideas with metaphorical imagery. King could have simply said, “We have come here today to seek our inalienable rights as American citizens.” Instead, he used metaphorical imagery:

“But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check- a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

As you write your next sermon, think of metaphorical imagery you can employ to concretize the concepts, and ground faith in the realities in which people “live, and move and have their being.”

Is there metaphorical imagery from sports, science, marriage and family, dating, elementary school, the medical profession, your last trip to the dentist, shopping at the mall, or from any arena of life that will align tightly with the thrust of your sermon? Employ a metaphor and watch your sermon come to life for people.    

Friday, December 2, 2016

Social Media as a Spiritual Discipline?

I just spent 5 minutes scrolling through Facebook. Now, I feel as dirty as a teenage boy who looked at porn for the first time. Where’s the shower! Seriously, even casual engagement with social media can often leave us feeling angry, hopeless, jealous, inferior, self-righteous, desperate, and judgmental. Social media can leave us filthy without us even realizing why. I wonder about the impact of social media upon divorce, violence, division, and depression. Would the world be better off without social media?

Well, I’m not ready to throw the baby out with the bath water and here’s why. God has always found a way to inhabit our way of life. In an ancient world that revolved around religious cultic practices and governmental law, God established the religious sacrificial system and 10 commandments to govern his people, the Israelites. To reach 1st century Jews, God came to us as a first century Jew named Jesus. God has a way of employing the tools of a particular culture to reach that culture. He forms people right where they “live and move and have their being.” Social media is where we live. But can God redeem it?

What if we engaged social media not in ways that make us feel dirty but in ways that foster our formation? Maybe social media can be for us a spiritual discipline like fasting, bible study, and worship. I’m convinced,  that while social media can certainly be a means of oppression and depression, it has the potential to be a premier tool God uses to deepen our faith and increase our love.

Let’s explore just a few of the many ways we can engage social mediums like Facebook and Twitter as a spiritually formative discipline. Please comment by sharing some ideas of your own, maybe even stuff you’re already practicing. If more and more followers of Christ practice the ideas below, as well as the ones you’ll present, social media won’t feel so dirty. I confess that I’ve fallen into the trap of allowing the popular practices of social media to deform instead of form me. But as we head into the new year soon, I’m turning over a new tweet!  

-Take a Prayer Scroll: Scroll through your Facebook feed prayerfully. Read the post of friends and family members trying to discern the hopes and hurts beyond their posts. Then, pray for them as led by God’s Spirit. If you come across a shared story from a news network about racial violence, a natural disaster, political shaming, or some other painful reality, pray for God’s intervention. The typical knee-jerk response, at least for me, is to post my words for the public to see instead of voice my prayer in private for God to hear. Let’s pray before we post. Or, let’s pray and not post. Try to start your day with a prayer scroll. Perhaps you can commit the first 10-15 minutes of your Facebook, Twitter or Instagram diversion to prayer.

-Celebrate Others: Let’s be honest, so often what we post is a not-so-veiled attempt to get people to notice our wisdom, accomplishments, cute kids, wonderful spouse, home d├ęcor or articles (like I’m doing nowL). Of course, this is not an entirely dirty use of social media. We should be able to share what’s going on in our lives with family and friends. But, what if we focused more on highlighting the wisdom and achievements of others more than showcasing our own? It would drastically change social media. I know people whose use of social media is entirely focused on celebrating others. You know someone like that? Imitate that person. The next time you are on Facebook, celebrate someone else by sharing their post or liking their picture. When you open Twitter, retweet someone else’s profound statement, book announcement, or thoughtful article. You get the idea. Or simply offer an original post or tweet that celebrates another person or group. Try to celebrate others via social media at least 5-10 times daily.

-Speak for the Oppressed: Social media is full of rants, which is why some of us take an occasional sabbatical from it. But the negative ranting is no reason for us not to use social media to speak up for those who can’t, won’t or don’t speak up for themselves. In order to get a hearing in a sea of ranting, we will need to expose injustice in thoughtful, gracious, forthright and loving ways. “Jesus came from the father full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Grace and truth are good guidelines for social media engagement. Be a voice for the people for whom Jesus was a voice. Post or tweet something that exposes the plight of the poor, mentally ill, persecuted and socially ostracized. Expose the ugliness of human trafficking and drug addiction, as well as political policies and economic systems that marginalize people. Be a voice for the voiceless and invite your Facebook friends and Twitter followers to do the same.       

Jump in. Help us out. Add your ideas.


Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Are You a Modern or Postmodern Preacher?

Preachers and preaching have changed dramatically over the past few decades. While we don’t refer to the categories of “Modern” and “Postmodern” as often as we used to, all of us have been primarily shaped by one or the other. I’ve written the playful dialogue below for my Narrative Preaching elective course. I play the part of the interviewer and invite two students to play either the part of the Modern Preacher or the Postmodern Preacher. The sketch below presents a generalized, maybe even stereotyped, caricature of the two sides. The goal is to playfully get at distinct preaching trends in each category. Read the interview and consider the one with whom you identify most.


Interviewer: Hi, I am going to be interviewing two preachers who represent two very different approaches to preaching God’s word. I invite them to introduce themselves.


Modern Preacher: Hello, I am a preacher whose ministry style and convictions have been shaped mostly by Modernity. You can call me Mo.


Postmodern Preacher: You can call me Po. I have been shaped mostly by the Postmodern context in which I live.


Interviewer: My first question is, How do you view Scripture? Mo, why don’t you start.


MO: That’s easy. Scripture is God’s timeless word to temporal people. It is inspired and inerrant. The bible is full of objective and absolute principles for living. If people would just learn to live by biblical principles, their lives and relationships with God and others would be much healthier.


PO: I view scripture not as a bunch of principles detached from each other but as a unified account that tells one grand story. Once one begins to see her story in light of the biblical story, life becomes meaningful and worth living. The Bible is a story book not a proposition or principle book.


Int: Isn’t the bible full of both principles and stories? Aren’t there principles derived from the story, and stories that are behind and lead to the principles? It seems to me the bible does tell one grand story, but throughout the biblical story there are principles that can be applied to life as long as those principles are not disconnected from relationship with God. In other words, the principles don’t work unless a relationship with God is at the center. Okay, next question, what makes a sermon biblical?


PO: If the sermon is authentic and faithful to the biblical text and to the contemporary context, it is biblical. Even if the preacher never opens the bible, the sermon could be more biblical than the sermon that strings together 10 different passages, cut and paste style.


MO: Hold on! You’re telling me that a sermon could be biblical without a passage being read. That’s not true. People need to know that the word of the preacher is coming from the word of God. A biblical sermon will have at least one or, preferably, more passages read during the sermon and, even better, the preacher will work word by word, phrase by phrase, verse by verse through the passage that is read.


PO: That sounds like bible-olotry. The bible in and of itself doesn’t have power apart from relationship with God. I can preach a sermon without reading any scripture at all that is more biblical than the sermon where the preacher quotes 9 passages, assuming that what I am saying aligns with the contours of the biblical story.


MO: You can’t have a sermon without a bible passage. That’s just a talk or a devotional or a speech. You need a text to have a sermon.


PO: Nope, you need a relationship with God to have a sermon. And your sermon must align with the contours of the biblical meta-narrative.


Int: Well, maybe we need both a biblical text and a relationship with God to be able to preach a sermon. Next question…how do you typically structure your sermon?


MO: I structure my sermon around the main points of the text. For some reason, I usually end up with three points. These points are the bridge between the bible and my people, they are propositional truths that grow out of the text but connect in relevant ways to my context. People can leave the sermon event with something to apply to their life situations. I also give my people an outline so they can write down the points, usually fill-in-the-blanks. The sermon structure is neat, linear, and logical. I want the sermon to inform and make sense to people. 


PO: I want my sermon to inspire people, even if it doesn’t make sense. I try not to give into the temptation to tidy everything up in a neat sermonic package. I want people to feel the angst and disequilibrium that may come from the biblical story. For this reason, I don’t structure my sermon into linear points, which seem good at information but not inspiration. Instead I structure my preaching of a text (yes, I do use the bible) around the elements of narrative like setting, problem, climax, and resolution. This seems to draw people in so that they experience the powerful plot of the text in the preaching moment, instead of merely going home with their outline filled in. To me, the inspirational experience listeners have during the sermon matters more than the information they take away after the sermon.


Int: I wonder if both kinds of sermons are needed. Aren’t there times when a sermon needs to be more didactic and logical? And aren’t there other times when a sermon should inspire change instead of simply inform? And, shouldn’t the genre and flow of the passage being preached determine, at least to some extent, whether the sermon uses a linear or narrative structure? I can see I’m upsetting you, so I will get to the next question. Let’s talk about important but secondary issues such as delivery style. How would you describe your preaching style?


PO: I try to be conversational, since I don’t see myself as the ultimate authority on God or his word. I simply talk to people and try to create a sense of dialogue with them. I invite them to be participants with me in discovery. I often develop sermons that raise more questions than the sermon answers. Sometimes, I think we preachers try to answer more questions than we have answers for. I want the sermon to be crafted, in a sense, communally not authoritatively. I want it to feel like a dialogue not a monologue.


MO: But you are the authority, anointed by God and trained to interpret the scriptures and proclaim good news. You are not called to “talk” to people; you are called to prophetically challenge people to conform to the image of Christ! The bible does have answers! What do you mean when you say your sermon raises more questions than it may answer? Are you a relativist or a proclaimer of truth?


PO: Of course I proclaim truth but I also invite listeners to be participants with me in the construction of truth. I believe we get at truth best when we invite multiple voices and considerations into the dialogue. Narrative presents just as much truth as propositions; but narrative invites people into the process of discovering truth instead of simply sitting back and filling in blanks.


MO: Are you saying that even nonbelievers can help the church get at truth? Can’t you see how this could lead the church off-track-if any Tom, Dick, or Harry is helping to craft truth? Are you an advocate of relativism and pluralism?


PO: Easy there, narrow-minded one! I believe the truth of the Gospel can stand up and shine even when less than perfectly reliable sources are engaged in getting at the truth. God even used Balaam’s donkey in the bible to speak truth.



Int: Can’t the preacher be both a prophetic authority and a communal conversationalist? Don’t you think that the preacher who is sensitive to congregational voices might actually increase his/her authority as a proclaimer? And, doesn’t your congregational context determine, to some extent, how you preach?


PO: I am preaching mostly to people ages 20-45. Many of them don’t even believe in the validity of the bible, but all of them are willing to explore a relationship with Christ. They are more interested in encounter with God than an encounter with principles. In my opinion, narrative sermons are better at creating an experience through which young adults encounter God.


MO: Most of the people in my congregation are between 45-70. We are mostly Boomers who want to know how the Bible works in real life. We want life-application. Our lives are complicated enough. We don’t want more tension and questions; we want clarity and answers. My people don’t want me beating around the bush. They want me to be clear and concise about the bottom line.


INT: You guys would make a great teaching team at an inter-generational church full of people with a diversity of needs when it comes to the preaching event. MO, young adults need to hear linear sermons that are clear and full of life-application from time to time. And PO, the Boomers and Builders need to explore the Gospel tensions that they may have uncritically assumed for far too long. Plus, there are multiple learning styles within each generation. Therefore, mixing up preaching styles is helpful. If you didn’t feel led to leave your present ministry positions, I wonder if each of you would be willing to explore the possibility of preaching like the other person from time to time. What do you say?    

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Best Preachers are the Best Listeners

As part of my doctoral studies, my cohort and I visited Seoul Korea. We were hosted by the Kwanglim United Methodist Church, one of the largest churches in the world. The church had 50,000 members at the time. How can church leaders care for and disciple 50,000 people?

The Korean pastors had a unique way of accomplishing this. The church employed approximately 30 pastors whose primary ministry was to visit the homes of all church members annually. Every one of the 50,000 members received a visit each year! I had the privilege of observing one of these visits. Shortly after arriving in the member’s home, the pastor would sit on the floor, a Korean custom, across from the church member. The pastor invited the member to detail what was going on in her life, including any prayer requests. The pastor listened intently. Then, when the member was finished sharing the good, bad, and ugly in her life, the pastor preached a 10 minute mini-sermon that was geared specifically to the needs of this member. In other words, the pastor first listened with his heart, mind, soul, and strength and then spoke with the same.

The best preachers seem to be the best listeners. The preacher who lives among the people, listening to their dreams, disappointments, and delights, will be able to preach with profound insight and relevance. There are several ways that a pastor can “listen” to the congregation at a profound level that is sure to foster profound preaching.   


“Listen” to your congregation before, during, and after you preach. If you aren’t speaking next Sunday, do this while another pastor preaches. Look around the room and observe the moods of the people. Do people seem anxious, bored, tired, energized, or open? What were their reactions to different parts of the sermon? What parts of the sermon seemed to connect with them most? What parts of the sermon seemed to flop? Perhaps you can videotape the congregation during the service so you can review it after the event.


            Interview five members per one hundred people in the church you serve who are diverse in terms of age, spiritual maturity, gender, ethnicity, and class. Ask each of them to list three characteristics of good preaching and three that describe bad preaching. If possible, follow up with clarifying questions regarding any ambiguous statements. You can do these interviews via email, phone call, or in person. Perhaps you will want to use a combination of these interview formats.


            If you are going to distribute an open-ended survey to your entire congregation during a worship service it has to be clear and brief. Try limiting the survey to only 3-5 questions. What open-ended questions can you ask the entire congregation in a survey that will accurately reveal the preaching needs and preferences of your congregants? Here are a few questions to consider including in your survey to the congregation: Why do you attend church? What three things do you need most right now? How would you describe your relationship with God? What do you hope for from the weekly sermon? How would you describe the preaching in the church? When you receive all of the data from the survey perhaps you can take a retreat to reflect on and listen to the hearts of your people. If you have some researchers in your church, maybe they can analyze and categorize the content from the survey.

Listening long and hard to the needs of people in your congregation will enable you to speak into their lives with refreshing depth. The best listeners are the best preachers because they scratch where their people itch most.


            1. Read the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and reflect upon how the sermon confirms that Jesus was insightfully aware of peoples’ deepest needs.

            2. Upon completing the observation, interviews, and survey, respond to the following two questions: How must my preaching change? How must my preaching not change?

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

An Election Year Plea to Preachers

According to the polls, Donald Trump is the leading candidate among Evangelicals. To me, this is clear sign that the American Dream has replaced the Christian Gospel. The American Dream that compels me to make a way for myself, to “get mine,” could not be more contrary to the Gospel of the Christ who came to give not to get, to empower the marginalized not to extol the powerful.

Donald Trump has made more than a few comments denigrating women, minorities, and the poor. Listen to any speech he gives and you will quickly note the arrogance and egotism that drives him. Narcissism hangs all over him like a bad $4000 suit. Yet, Trump is the leading candidate among Evangelicals. How can this be? I don’t hate Trump or want to demonize him. I pity him. My expectations for Trump are rather low. However, my expectations for the Church of Jesus Christ, the one who came to serve in selfless love, are really high. Frankly, I am disappointed not in Trump or the Republican Party. I’m heart-broken by the Church for even considering a candidate like Trump to be not only viable but desirable.

Perhaps Trump, if elected, will get us closer to the American Dream than many of us under 50 have ever been. Taxes will be cut. Illegals will be booted and kept out so we have more. If taxes are cut and illegals are gone, we might end up with enough discretionary income to buy a second or, better yet, a third car. A larger home in a better neighborhood is a likely result. But will we better off?

The Gospel of Jesus Christ in more than a few ways flies in the face of the American Dream. In fact, one cannot simultaneously chase the “stake my claim” dream of the West and the values of the Christ. That split allegiance leads inevitably to a double life that tares the soul in two. Professing Christianity while practicing Trumpianity will lead to disastrous disintegration.   

How do we fix this thing? Enter the Christian preacher. While preaching, in part, may have gotten us into this mess, I’m convinced preaching may be the way out. Maybe it’s time for preachers to change the title of our sermon series from How to Manage Your Money to Overcoming American Greed with Christian Generosity, from The Road to a Better You to Making the World a Better Place, from Your Best Life Now to The Christ-Life Now. To the point, preaching in America, perhaps now more than ever, must articulate the distinction between Americanology and Christology, calling the Church to forsake the former to embrace the latter.

I’m not suggesting that preachers ought to stand up this Sunday and rail against Trump with hair-fire, I mean hell-fire and brimstone. As tempting as this might be for some of you, it will merely apply a temporary band-aid to a surgical need. The better way is, as is often the case, the longer way. If we preach “Christ and him crucified,” as Paul did, over and over again, Sunday after Sunday after Sunday, in creatively insightful ways, the tide will turn. If we preach the will and the way of Christ in a winsome and faithful manner now, when another Trump-like figure arises in a decade promising to fulfill our self-centered dreams, we won’t budge from the anchor of the cross.         

Am I oversimplifying complex issues with a simplistically myopic response? Well, you make the call. Just don’t say I’m ugly or assume that I’m a criminal because of my ancestry or build a wall to keep me out of your sight. That wouldn’t be very Christian.