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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

My Dissertation Defense is Done!!!

I met yesterday with my dissertation committee, Drs. Mike Pasquarello, Joe Dongell, and Milton Lowe, to defend my Doctor of Ministry Dissertation entitled: A Journey in Preaching as a Spiritual Discipline. The committee was very complimentary of my work and approved my dissertation with only minor editorial changes. So, I will graduate on May 22, 2010 with a Doctoral Degree! Who would have thought that a high school drop-out from South Philly would end up with a doctorate? Not me. But that's just how the grace of God works- in ways that surprise, delight, and, often, overwhelm us.

The purpose of my dissertation project was to create a model for the development and delivery of sermons that would facilitate greater connection and intimacy between the preacher and the Christ whom the preacher proclaims. I contend that too many preachers are either on the verge of burnout or boredom because we have become more enamored with the craft of preaching than the Christ we preach. Homiletics has been hijacked by an over-emphasis on rhetorical technique, so that preachers tend to be more concerned with method, skills, personality, and eloquence than with the power of the Holy Spirit through their person and through their preaching. Exegetical, hermeneutical, and homiletical skills are necessary and important. I believe so strongly in these skills that I teach them to pastors in my denomination. However, if these skills are not submitted to and redeemed by the power of God then preaching will fall far short of its potential to transform lives.

I created a model for developing and delivering sermons that incorporated spiritual disiplines throughout the homiletic process. This was intended to facilitate a preaching practice that felt more like a journey into Christ than a task to be completed apart from Christ. My assumption was that preaching as a spiritual discipline, and not merely as a rhetorical task, would increase preaching joy and Christian ethos (love for God and love for people) in the 12 participating pastors. The findings of my study did, in fact, reveal an increase for participants in these areas.

My dissertation will eventually be available online. I'll keep you posted by letting you know when it's available. If you are interested in seeing it sooner, please email me and I'll send it to you electronically.

Thanks again for your prayers and celebration with me!

Friday, January 22, 2010

My Dissertation Defense Has Arrived!

This coming Tuesday from 9:00-11:00am I will be defending my Doctor of Ministry dissertation. If all goes as planned, I will graduate this Spring. God has used so many people to get me to this point, people who prayed for me and noted potential in me that I didn't see in myself. Although a victory speech is premature, a thank you speech is overdue. I want to credit the following people for investing in my educational and spiritual journey which, for me, has been one in the same:

Amy, my wife, is the one who encouraged me to apply for Asbury Theological Seminary's Beeson Pastor Doctor of Ministry Program. I thought Asbury would be crazy to award me a full-ride Doctor of Ministry scolarship; Amy thought they would be crazy not to. I love you and always will..."to whom else shall I go"!

The Stroudsburg Wesleyan Church, which I have served for nearly 7 years as Lead Pastor, is my dream church in so many ways. They allowed me to leave for a one year study sabbatical and to return as their pastor after the sabbatical year. Few churches would be willing to do what you did. But, at this point, you have developed a habit of being a courageous, risk-taking church and cannot do otherwise.

My Houghton College and Asbury Seminary professors inspired in me a deep love for learning and piety which, at times I confess, were both sorely lacking. These scholars were as intellgent as any people I have ever met, but their passion for Christ and the Church was their "lead card."

There have been so many encouragers along the way whose perception of my potential was well beyond my own self-perception. Dr. Harry Wood has been more than a District Superintendent to me; he has been a mentor, cheering me on and giving me opportunities to serve in ways that often exceeded my capacity. He has modelled for me what a minister is supposed to do when ministry challenges exceed a pastor's capacity- lean on Christ!

Drs. Charles and Darlene Bressler found ways to encourage me when I was a college student, when I was one of their pastors, and when I became their friend. They are extravagantly generous people whose academic prowess leads them not to become pompous but to love God and people better.

Dr. Wes Oden hired me as an assistant pastor at the Houghton Wesleyan Church and then encouraged me to pursue higher education four years later through Asbury's Master of Divinity program. He encouraged me to leave the church to go and study not because he wanted to get rid of me (I hope!!!) but because he cared about me and my longterm ministry.

I could list so many others, but those above are certainly among the most notable. Please pray for me on Tuesday. I'll let you know how things go!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Preaching Context is Everything!

There is something other than sound exegesis, solid hermeneutics, and stellar homiletics that makes good preaching good. Truth be told, sometimes the determining factor behind whether or not a preacher gets a hearing has very little to do with the craft of preaching and very much to do with how well the preacher matches the context in which he/she preaches. For example, there are many people who would say that Charles Stanley, shown on TV all over the country, is a good preacher. While I respect the man’s love for God and his conviction that the bible is God’s word, I quickly change the TV station because I’m not into his preaching. Most of the people in Stanley’s church and most of the people outside of his church who love his preaching tend to be 60 years of age or older. Charles Stanley is a good preacher in his context because he matches his context. Andy Stanley, the son of Charles, is one of my favorite preachers. Andy is about my age and most of the people who attend his church are younger than 40 years of age. Andy is a good preacher because he matches the context of people to whom he preaches. Context is everything!

Why do some preachers attract a growing number of people who come hungry to hear their preaching while other preachers face the pain of a diminishing congregation? Not always, but often, it has everything to do with whether or not the preacher fits with their preaching context. It’s not about whether or not the preacher has a good or bad style but whether or not the style of the preacher is contextualized. The Apostle Paul recognized this which is why he preached differently to Greek Athenians in the town square than he did to Diaspora Jews in the synagogue. Paul realized that our preaching gets heard most when our preaching content and style match the people to whom we preach.

The further I go in ministry the more I realize who I am as a preacher. The more I realize who I am as a preacher the more aware I become of the fact that there are more church contexts I wouldn’t match than ones I would match. When I first began my pastoral ministry 15 years ago I would have been glad to serve as pastor to any group of people any place without a thought to whether or not I was a good fit with the church context. Today, I think I’m a bit wiser (though some might disagree…lol) and I realize that there are some churches that I would not fit in terms of my preaching preferences. I do believe that if you preach the Scriptures with passion, and love God and the people you serve with passion, a pastor can probably survive in ministry anywhere. However, I am convinced that a preacher will thrive most when preaching in a context that is congruent with the preacher.

Share your thoughts on this. Would you agree or disagree?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

How To Preach Without Notes

Perhaps I am overly opinionated on this topic, but I am convinced that those who preach with few notes or no notes at all tend to connect better with listeners. There are a few manuscript preachers out there who are excellent because they come across as if they are talking to people not paper. However, preaching is primarily a conversational event not a written or read one. Good content poorly communicated will not be heard by the majority of people listening. Poor content effectively communicated will, regrettably, get a hearing. So it makes sense for preachers who have something to say that is Christ-focused and biblical to say it well. Agreed?

I have rubbed more than a few of my preaching students the wrong way when I have encouraged them to preach with no notes or a slim outline. Public speaking is usually among peoples’ top fears. Public speaking without notes, then, is an off-the-charts fear. So, why would I ask my students and colleagues to give it a try? Because it can liberate us from our deepest fears about speaking and help us connect with our congregation at a deeper level during the preaching event. Here are a couple of ideas that can help pastors preach without notes:

-Prayer: Prayerfully read and re-read the preaching text. This may seem like an obvious first step, but you’d be surprised how many preachers quickly run to commentaries or internet illustration sites without even giving God a chance to speak to them through the text he/she will be proclaiming on Sunday morning. See this step as one that is devotional, one that is aimed at deepening the preacher’s connection to the God who calls us to preach. As you read the preaching text prayerfully ask God three questions: What are you saying to the original audience (i.e., Israelites, Galatians)? What are you saying to me? What are you saying to us (congregation, audience)? Take notes as God gives you certain impressions. After this you can check your reflections and questions with a few good commentaries and dictionaries. But let God have the first word since He may lead you to a new discovery.

-Pictures: As you consider all the exegetical discoveries, illustrations, and applications that flow out of the biblical text you’re proclaiming, think in terms of pictures. Picturesque language will not only help you remember what you want to say but will stick in the minds and hearts of listeners more than vague, propositional language will. As you think of the 7-10 nuggets upon which your sermon will hang, think in terms of pictures. I would also encourage you to actually think of the entire message as one big picture. If there is a picturesque allegory that drives you sermon’s main point, assuming your sermon has a main point, it will be most memorable. I recently preached a sermon on being forgiven and being forgiving. I entitled the sermon “Getting and Giving Mulligans.” You golfers know what I mean by mulligans, but now so does my entire congregation. When they think of forgiveness they will think of mulligans and when they think of golf or Tiger Woods (a media spectacle these days) they will think of forgiveness. Perhaps you will get to the place in your preaching in which you have pictures to describe the 7-10 parts of your sermon outline. I hope you do.

-Placement: Now that you have all the pictures that make up the big picture of your sermon, you are ready to place the pictures in an order that allows for a seamless flow. This is extremely important because a poor thought flow will challenge your ability to preach without notes and your congregation’s ability to remember what you preached. Here is where, I think, lots of preachers drop the ball. I confess that for far too long I neglected prayerful and careful placing of the parts of my sermons. I threw things together haphazardly. As you place the parts try to aim for narrative flow. That is, think of the sermon as the components of a story: setting, character development, plot/problem, resolution, and conclusion.

-Practice: Once you have all the parts of the sermon in an order that flows, you are ready to practice preaching the message. Go ahead and speak it aloud, slowly and prayerfully. As you’re doing this, consider how you want to say certain things. Think about gestures that reinforce what your words are communicating. You may discover through practicing the message that your sermon is too long or too short, that something needs to be cut or added. Practicing the sermon will allow it to stick in your brain so that you can preach without notes. I usually spend about 60-90 minutes prayerfully practicing and reflecting on the message.

When you preach without notes you might forget a few things you wanted to say but you will remember the most important pictures within the big picture of your message. Go for it!