What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: A Very Stupid Book

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I had a college professor that always assigned one lousy book a semester to read.  He claimed we needed to read stupid books so we don’t become stupid people.  The reasoning was that stupid books teach critical thinking in a way good books never will.

Under his thinking, I grew a lot yesterday afternoon.

You see, every year I get a free book in the mail from a forgettable organization that specializes, I assume, in giving pastors free books.  This is now the 4th book I have received from them and the other three were worth reading.  They weren’t ground breaking but they were practical, helpful stuff.

This new book was a step lower.  It might have been the worst book I have read in some time.

It was called “Growing God’s Church” by Gary L. McIntosh.  Apparently Gary McIntosh led a research team that interviewed a bit over 1,000 new Christians and new church members.  Their questions focused on how and why these people had come to Christ.  The book was published to help pastors reach people better.  On that premise, this should have been a book worth flipping through for an hour on a sunny afternoon.

However, very strangely, the book didn’t begin with the results.  Instead McIntosh spent five chapters trying to argue that evangelism should be the only goal of the church.  He retold the four gospel stories and Acts as if they were 1950s gospel tracts.  McIntosh wanted his readers know not to be fooled by what Jesus actually said and did but to know that Jesus really just wanted to get us into heaven and recruit us to preach the 4 point Romans gospel.  He even argued that the only reason Jesus showed compassion was because it was an incredibly effective evangelism means, not for the sake itself of compassion.  Don’t be fooled.  God isn’t love.  God is evangelism.  God only loves to dupe us into praying the sinner’s prayer.

His exegesis of the gospels was more the eisegesis type.  Eisegesis is the frowned upon practice of taking your preconceived ideas to Scripture to find proof texts.  McIntosh seemingly all ready knew that getting people into heaven was the most important thing and he did not want to be bothered by what the gospels actually say, just to know that Jesus agrees.

His most blaring example came from Luke.  In Luke Jesus begins his public ministry in Nazareth by proclaiming that he will “make blind see, the lame walk, the lepers cleansed, the deaf hear and to proclaim good news to the poor.”  (Luke 4:22)  Then Jesus goes out and does almost exactly that to real life blind, deaf, sick and poor people.  Later Jesus even sends a message to John the Baptist, pointing to the actual miracles he had accomplished as proof that he was the Messiah.  Gary McIntosh brings this up and uses it to argue that Jesus only came to help the spiritually blind, lame, sick, poor and that Jesus didn’t actually care about actual blindness, this despite the fact that Jesus actually made blind men see.  But McIntosh decided it was just metaphorical so it is.  This is just one example of many I could cite.

The research was questionable too but, to be fair, all research is.  For one, his sample size was too small and limited to a few denominations.  He made some wild generational claims that I don’t think will hold true throughout lifespans.  He points out gender and generational differences that were statistical ties but uses the fact that one was .5 higher to argue that everybody in that demographic are that way.

His main assertion in the second half of the book is that family members make the best evangelists.  He argues we should nurture and use that.  Ironically I do wholeheartedly agree and think his research does validate that.  More than that he has some okay ideas about how to go about it.

Also, even though I loathed McIntosh’s eisegetical interpretation of the gospels, he still referenced a few verses that I had not thought of in quite some time.  I have been studying the use of the word “glory” in John’s gospel and McIntosh quoted one of the “glory” verses I had not yet noticed and that verse at first glance does seem to support his thesis and not my own.

But those random useful snippets are not what made the book worth my time.  It is incredibly easy to get stuck in the rut of only reading things that fit my preconceived notions.  Most of my books come to me from the suggestions of colleagues in my own tradition.  Those books are good but I sometimes wonder if it is a waste of time to read things that tell you everything you all ready knew.

In turn, it might not be a waste of a Monday afternoon to read a book from someone in a completely different theological tradition.  He quoted verses I hadn’t noticed and suggested things I would not have thought of.  Even though I disagreed with him, at least I now know why and how his tradition sees things.

In the end I might take a chapter or two to my outreach team to help them think critically about evangelism in our local community.

In my professor’s thinking we might have McIntosh’s stupidity to thank for the elimination of our own.  Or maybe I am wrong about everything and he is right.  We only find out when Jesus comes.

Until then, have a great Valentine’s Day!

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A Preacher’s Commitments Part 2: Using Images

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When I was in college I took a class that was all about preaching creative sermons.  The foundation of the class was the narrative preaching technique, with a bit of inductive approach sprinkled in.  But the heart of the class was the use of images.

The teacher spent hours teaching us how to use Photoshop to spruce up our sermons.  He talked us through all the copyright laws (which were not many at that point) and gave us examples of greatly illustrated sermons and lectures.

However, the one big takeaway from the class was that using media in your sermons is not something you should do halfway.  If you couldn’t do it well, don’t do it at all.  Just get up in the pulpit and use hand gestures and facial expressions.

For the first years of preaching regularly, I tried to follow that advice.  I used images sparingly with my sermons, probably about a third of the time.  I usually did it only if two qualifications were both met.  First, I had to have the time to put the slideshow together.  Second, I had to know where I was going with the pictures.  I didn’t want to do them for the sake of doing them.

But last year I read Leonard Sweet some more.  Then I considered the younger people in my congregation and how image fueled they are.  Then I found that pictures were a much better way to keep track of my sermon’s logic than notes were.  Then I thought about how image oriented and symbol fused our culture is.  After all that I consciously affirmed what I had all ready subconsciously decided, that using pictures (and using them well) was a must for every single sermon.

And that commitment has certainly paid off.  The sermons run smoother.  The audience is more engaged.  There are more avenues available for expressing humor and emotion (than just my wild arm movements and facial expression :P).  And I can keep better track of where I am in the message.

But in the spirit of using images well I to let you in on some of guidelines that govern how I use them.  I do so in the hopes that they can help illustrate (no pun intended) how useful that 8 foot tall screen in my sanctuary can be.

Layton 1

I admit, I really like ancient icons from the faith and rely heavily on them, like this slide from a sermon on Jesus’ baptism.

1) Use text very sparingly.  So far in this post I have avoided using the word PowerPoint, even though that is the program I use to put the pictures into a slideshow.  PowerPoint implies bullet points and I do not use bullet points very much, though there are exceptions.  Instead I focus heavily on pictures and memes.  I do put Bible verses on the screen once or twice a sermon but other than that I rely mostly on pictures.  The point isn’t to give people things to write down.  It is to give them a visual example of something my words are illustrating.

Singing The Easter Song All Wrong

During Easter this year this was my standard “transition” slide, minus the title of course.

2) For a 20 minute sermon 8-10 pictures will do.  When I first started using pictures, I thought I needed a new picture for every thought or a new image every 30 seconds.  This was manic.  Now, I only use pictures I think help keep the message afloat.  This might mean a picture of an empty tomb is on the screen for five minutes while I exegete the Resurrection passage.  It also might mean I have a standard “background” slide that I alternate back to during transitions.  Whatever the strategy, you don’t need 40 pictures for a 20 minute message.

3) Practice, practice, practice.  The biggest nuisance about putting pictures with your sermons is that you have to practice your sermons 10x more.  And you cannot practice them sitting at your desk.  You have to actually practice in the sanctuary, behind the pulpit, with the projector on.  (Though most times I cheat and just put my laptop in the front pew.)  Practice is invaluable for so many reasons.  It helps you feel out the flow of your sermon and the pictures.  It helps you find out which pictures were superfluous.  But most importantly it creates subconscious connections in your brain so that when you see the picture, you instinctively what to say.

Proverbs Slide

From a sermon on Proverbs. I shudder at the horror!

4) The pictures need to look professional.  Probably the biggest mistake I have consistently made is that I slap together lousy slides using Microsoft’s crude image cropping and color altering.  The result is a chaotic, disgusting slide like the one to your right.  The real failure was the times I used bullet points and couldn’t find a background for them so I just used black on white.  Ironically switching that to white text with a black background was all I needed for a professional spin.  I have repented of that recently when I realized I would rather search through pages and pages of Google images, using multiple search terms to find the one picture that says what I want it too than work just as hard to put together a dumb looking slide.

antique roadshow slide

I put this joke up last Sunday but barely referred to it. I let it speak for itself while I was explaining the idea of finding antiques you didn’t know where valuable.

5) The pictures are one piece of the whole, not the centerpiece.  I get it, we all like pictures.  We are crazy addicted to them because since the first time mom and dad let us watch the television, we have seen literally tens of thousands of them a day.  Still, throwing a bunch of clever pictures together is not an excuse for shallow Biblical study and incoherent content.  This is why I always do the slideshow last in my prep, well last before I go to the practice stage.  First comes exegesis.  Second comes content.  Third comes a clever metaphor or story that helps package the content.  Then come the pictures to add depth to the metaphor, content and exegesis.

In closing, I am not entirely sure using pictures badly is worse than not using them at all.  I am trying to rethink that as I continue to experiment with how to visually support my content.  For one, I think failure to try is not the same as trying and failing.

So try to use pictures and see where they get you and what you might learn!

The Stuff Jesus Never Always Did

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I read a lot of pastoral leadership resources, also known as pastor self-help books.  I fly through at least 20 a year and they cover the bases on how to be a better counselor, preacher, administrator, leader, follower, mentor, mentee, disciple maker, disciple becomer and spiritual guide.

Many of them come from the same stock.  A pastor somewhere in America discovered some principle or practice that really changed his or her church for the better.  They started sharing it with others and eventually a publisher asked them to write a book about it.  So they went to write a book and felt obligated as a preacher to make it sound like the idea came straight from Jesus.  Though, when you dig deeper than their shallow arguments, you find the idea actually came from a conversation or through a prayer meeting or from another book.  After having the idea, the pastor went to the gospels to find out if Jesus practiced this principle and found a case where Jesus may have done it.  Then they concluded, “Jesus ALWAYS Does this.”

The first chapters of these books describe these things that Jesus always did and ask the question, “Don’t you want to always be like Jesus?”

One book about pastoral counseling concluded that Jesus always asked questions.  .  .except for the fact that there are plenty of conversations recorded in the gospels when Jesus asks zero questions.

One book about “self care” said Jesus always fought off temptation by quoting Scripture.  Except we only have three examples of ways in which Jesus was tested.  That is hardly a trend.

One book about spiritual disciplines argued Jesus always made people feel warm and cozy around him and never insulted anybody.  .  .except in Luke 6:24-26 and the other passages like it.

One book about board meetings said Jesus was super patient with everybody and never lost his temper.  .  .except that one time in all 4 gospels when he beat people out of the temple with a whip.

One book about social justice concludes Jesus was always eating with poor people.  .  .except that one time he crashed Zaccheus the rich tax collector’s house.

The Children’s Ministry books say Jesus was always hanging out with little kids, except the “let the children come to me” incident only happened once.

The Youth Ministry books say Jesus was always hanging out with teenagers.  .  .except for the fact that to be a tax collector, which a few of the disciples were, you had to be a bit older than a teenager.

The anti-church growth books say Jesus always had 12 disciples so we shouldn’t have mega-churches.  Except the disciples are numbered at different times as 12, 72 and 120 and never once did Jesus command his 12 to only have 12.

And speaking about those megachurches, people were always leaving Jesus so if you preach the Jesus-truth people should always be running away from you.  .  .except for the fact large crowds were always following Jesus too.  It was kind of a wash as far as the numbers went.

They all say that Jesus always led by example.  .  .except that one time he told his disciples to bring a sword and then yelled at Peter for using said sword.

If you read all four gospels, you will find the only thing Jesus always did was breath.  .  .except there were 3 days that he wasn’t even doing that.

Instead what the gospels give us are incomplete accounts of the things Jesus sometimes did and sometimes taught.  And those things changed from context to context.

The problem seems to be that in a church still desperately struggling to rid itself of the CEO Ministry Model, we still think Jesus can be boiled down to a formula of leadership self helps for the 21st century.

But when I read the Gospels I find a Jesus who is so much greater than a formula, even if that formula “always works every time.”  When the Sadducees come at him, he answers their questions with questions but when Nicodemus the Pharisee comes at night, Jesus issues proclamations about new birth before Nicodemus even asks the question.

To some crowds, Jesus spoke in parables.  Other times he adopts the formula, “You have heard.  .  .but I say” and when it is just his 12 disciples listening in, he utters mysteries about the Spirit.

Sometimes He says, “come follow me.”  Other times He flees to the desert before anybody can, though they did try.

One time He said, “let the children come.”  Another time He waited before going to a child so that he could heal an elderly woman.

All of this would make it seem that in the full person of Jesus we do not have the confines of 21st century leadership practices.  Instead we have a full and free personality whose life and teachings could not be adequately summarized even in 4 books (see John 20:30-31).

This should give us great freedom to adapt to our changing culture without having to proof text every principle and practice through the gospels.

Instead of saying, “Jesus always asked questions,” we should note that psychiatrists conclude in our time and place successful therapists ask good questions.

Instead of saying, “Jesus only had 12” we should note that currently several pastors report that having more than 15 people make discipleship groups unmanageable.

Instead of saying, “Jesus always hung out with one age group” we should note that in the right context children and youth can provide wonderful gifts and insights.

And instead of boiling down Jesus to 21st century leadership principles and practices, we should recognize that we worship and follow an eternal Savior who invites people from all contexts and all times into a loving relationship with the Triune God.

Sometimes that means listening to children.  Sometimes it means befriending those poorer than you.  Other times it means hanging out with tax collectors.  Sometimes we tell stories and sometimes we utter mysteries and sometimes we ask questions.  But at all times we pick up our crosses and follow.