Worship: Where is everybody?

Worship:  Where is everybody?

Last Sunday, I played guitar and sang at our contemporary worship service.  I don’t play in church very often, and I don’t claim to be very good.  In fact, I play and sing so rarely, my meager abilities are always on the far-to-rusty side.  But, in spite of my rust and musical limitations, I love the rare opportunities I lead people in worshiping God in song.  At one point, Sunday, as I sang, I was overcome with emotion and nearly cried.  Crying and singing is really, really hard!

While I don’t play and sing in worship, often, I do preach on an almost-weekly basis.  Preaching is my true passion.  I hear some preachers struggle with sermon preparation.  I hear some preachers struggle with sermon writing.  I hear some preachers struggle with nerves, delivering sermons.  I hear some preachers are worn down by preaching EVERY week.  I don’t struggle with any of that.  I love it, from beginning to end!  I’m not claiming to be a great preacher – I just love doing it!  If I could give 100% of my time to preaching prep and delivery, I gladly would!

In fact, I enjoy all facets of worship – traditional/liturgical and modern/contemporary.  I love planning worship.  I love spontaneous worship.  I love singing hymns and contemporary worship songs.  I love traditional liturgy and technology.  I love the “smells and bells” of “high” church worship, and hands lifted in praise, in contemporary services.

I love planning worship.  I love leading worship.  I love worshipping from the pew.  I love all of it.

But, in spite of my passion for worship, I have growing sense something about worship isn’t “working.”

Throughout my entire Christian life and ministry, Sunday morning worship – regardless of form or style – has been the primary function of every local church I’ve known and served.  Yes, churches have meetings, Bible studies, missions, fellowship, etc. throughout the week.  But, worship draws the crowd.  Worship requires most of the church’s collective time, energy, focus, talent, facility, and funding.

What’s the largest (and least used) building on a church campus?  The sanctuary.  What’s the largest portion of the budget?  When you add up everything – from salaries, to utilities, to property maintenance and insurance, to the cost of music – I suspect Sunday morning worship represents the largest chunk of a church’s expenditures.  Why do churches require so much parking?  Only one reason: Sunday mornings.

Likewise, throughout my entire Christian life and ministry, worship attendance – across the nation and across denominations – has been, and is, statistically in decline.  Sanctuaries and church parking lots are less and less full on Sunday mornings.  Even the super-successful, fastest-growing mega-churches are noting a decline in weekly worship attendance.

Why?

One reason is, younger people aren’t attending worship services like the older generations.  We’ve all heard about the growing numbers “nones” and “dones.”

Another reason is the growing affluence in our country.  In spite of many claiming to have financial struggles, overall, more and more people can afford to travel, participate in sports, buy a boat, go to a concert or movie, renovate their home, pay to run a marathon, own a boat, or go to the beach for the weekend.  When you can’t afford to do those things, you might be more likely to stay home and attend worship.  But, when you can, you do.

Another reason is technology.  Now, thanks to the internet, you can watch or listen to the very best preachers and worship bands, often “live,” from the comfort of your own home and Laz-i-boy recliner, in your boxers and bathrobe, rather than getting dressed, dragging the kids, dealing with the traffic, sitting in a hard pew, and being hounded about giving your tithes and offerings.  Oh yeah, you can avoid human contact too!

Which leads to another reason: consumerism.  Rather than viewing worship as something we do, together, in service and duty to God, we’ve turned worship into a spectator sport – a form of spiritual entertainment.  If worship is just entertainment, we’ll never compete with what the world has to offer.  Whether it’s a 3-D surround-sound movie theater, a sporting complex, or Walt Disney World, church-as-entertainment can’t compete.  Nor should we.  We aren’t in the entertainment business.  But, as long as we approach worship as consumers, rather than contributors, worship will be little else.

And, another reason is the current climate of divisiveness in our country.  We are as divided and polarized as ever.  I find everything I say “from the pulpit” is scrutinized more than ever before, for signs of hidden biases and agendas.  I do have biases and agendas.  But, they aren’t hidden.  You don’t have to search for them.  I’m usually pretty open and honest!  If people don’t agree with the pastor’s preaching, rather than being challenged to think and reconsider their beliefs, they just leave.

I’m sure there are as many reasons for NOT regularly attending a worship service, as there are people who regularly do not attended worship services.

So, I’m beginning to wonder, what if it’s time to reevaluate the Sunday worship gathering as the PRIMARY function of a local church?  I’m NOT suggesting we should stop worshipping together.  Rather, I wonder if, in the not-too-distant future, corporate worship will be in smaller, less formal settings, and not necessarily in church sanctuaries, on Sunday mornings.

Perhaps worship will happen more organically, and even more frequently, when Christians gather to share a meal, or for a small group Bible study, or to serve together.  I wonder if worship, in the future, will be more relational, more face-to-face, more conversational.  If wonder if worship will be less professionally driven – by paid preachers and musicians – and more lay-led.  I wonder if worship will happen less in sanctuaries, and more in homes, parks, coffee shops, yoga studios, gardens, around dinner tables.

And, I wonder if Church will become more dispersed; perhaps, fewer large-group gatherings, and many more smaller gatherings for study, service, worship, prayer, fellowship, accountability, etc.

Think of worship in the Bible.  Yes, we can all think of some large gatherings – the Sermon on the Mount, the day of Pentecost, the annual Jewish festivals in Jerusalem.  But, I get the impression that most corporate worship, in biblical times, wasn’t very much like what it’s become.

Please hear me.  I’m not trying to be prophetic, predictive, or prescriptive.  I’m not implying any “shoulds.”  I love the ministry of corporate worship, and am saddened to watch it decline.  It’s what I know and what I love, and I hate the idea of losing it.

But, I’m just wondering.  I’m wondering.

I do think there’ll continue to be a place for the Sunday worship gathering, at least in the foreseeable future.  I do think corporate worship continues to be worthy of our best efforts.  I still think there’s a role, thankfully, for professional preachers, worship leaders, organists, etc.  I still think there are opportunities to offer both traditional (and contemporary) worship services, as well as new and innovative worship experiences.  There are still churches with growing worship attendances, and we should pay attention to how and why that’s happening.

But, perhaps its time to expand our minds.  Perhaps its time to expand our understanding of what worship is and who it’s for.  Perhaps its time to expand our vision for what Church can be.  Perhaps – brace yourself – it’s time for change.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

Sermon Preparation

Sermon Preparation

Prayerfully planning, researching, writing and rehearsing a substantive, relevant, Truth-filled sermon requires a significant amount of time – MUCH more time than the average person-in-the-pew assumes.  Somewhere along the way, I learned a good sermon requires one hour of preparation for each minute of preaching.  In other words, a twenty-minute sermon should require twenty hours of prayer, study, reflection, writing, and rehearsal.  Though I’ve never actually timed my weekly preparation time, I suspect that’s about right.

This makes sense to me.  The sermon is the one time, each week, the pastor can have the most impactful contact with the most people.  That twenty minutes (or twenty-five, or thirty…) is an opportunity to teach, speak Truth, cast vision, offer hope, and draw a large number of people closer to God – all at the same time.  Though a pastor may be in contact with large numbers of people throughout the week – via meetings and visitation – nothing can compare to the potential impact of the sermon.

And, my personal conviction is, I owe my very best to my congregation.  If anyone – much less hundreds of “anyones” – is willing to sit quietly for twenty minutes, or so, listening to me preach, they deserve the best sermon I can give them.  My congregation deserves that respect.

The Word deserves that respect!  God deserves that respect!  My sermon, every week, ought to be the very best I can possibly offer!

The problem is, most pastors don’t have twenty hours, every week, to devote to a sermon.  A pastor’s week is filled with myriad other responsibilities:  supervising staff, hospital visitation, denominational responsibilities, committee meetings, reports, leading classes and Bible studies, responding to crises, pastoral care and counseling, funerals, weddings, Baptism meetings, letter writing, event planning, follow-up with visitors, etc., etc.  And, in any given week, unexpected needs, opportunities, and tragedies pop up, consuming time that might have otherwise been used for sermon preparation.  And, don’t forget, pastors need Sabbath and family time, too.

Often, the result is ill-prepared, shallow, half-baked sermons.  Some gifted preachers have sufficient oratory and/or storytelling skills to pull off a sermon, high on emotional impact and entertainment value, yet fairly low on substance. I hope we all agree that’s less than ideal.

It’s not the preacher’s fault.  It’s just reality.  Ministry is hard.  Adequate sermon prep is often more time consuming than the preacher has to commit.

I’m not ok with that reality.  Like every preacher, I’ve preached my share of half-baked sermons.  I strive for that to be the rare exception, and certainly not the norm.  But, it happens.

A number of years ago, I discovered the value of long-range sermon planning.  When I say “long-range,” I mean, more or less, a year of sermons in advance.  For those preachers, tired of struggling week-to-week, I offer you my method…

Every year, I take a full week to do nothing but sermon planning and research.  Taking a full week away from the church isn’t easy – but it’s important!  And, this isn’t vacation!  In fact, I’d argue it’s the most important work week you will have all year long!

I usually do this sometime between Easter and Labor Day.  Before that week, I prayerfully develop a list of topics and themes that could possibly become series and sermons.  Before my week arrives, I gather a stack of books relative to the ideas I am considering.  This process alone takes several months.

When my planning week arrives, I go to some isolated place, away from distractions.  More often than not, I’ve spent those weeks in monasteries, in silence.  But, cabins, condos, and beach houses work just as well.  Last week, I was blessed to use a beautiful house in Eleuthera, Bahamas!  There have also been times I’ve locked myself away in my own house – but, that’s less than ideal.

Then I read, and read, and read – Scripture, books, blogs, articles, commentaries.  Over a week, I can read five or six books.  And, as I read, I take notes, writing down ideas for specific sermons.  As I read, I highlight passages that speak to me, so they will be easy to find later.  At some point, the list I previously prepared, my scribbled notes, and all of those highlights begin to form actual ideas for future series and sermons.

I’ve developed this chart, for each Sunday of the coming year…

Date:
Series Name:
Scriptures:
Sermon Title:
Sermon Purpose Statement:
Sermon Resources:
Hymn/Songs:
Prayers/Liturgy:
Audio Visual:
Other:

Once I have a basic idea for every Sunday of the coming year, I create a Word Document, and start filling in a chart for each and every Sunday.  I don’t always fill in every box during my planning week.  But, I fill in as much as I can.  I do write a purpose statement for every sermon, even if I’m not sure about the title.  I choose a primary Scripture text, and several supporting texts.  Then, as I finish each book I read, I fill in the “resource” block with page numbers of every underline or highlighted sentence that might be relevant to that particular message.  By the end of the week, most of the charts have far more info than I can possibly use in a given sermon, which means I get to pick and choose the material that seems most relevant and insightful.

By the end of my planning week, I have a solid plan for the coming year, and pages and pages of materials.  Of course, when the week of a particular sermon arrives, the sermon manuscript still has to be written, and practiced.  But, I find that task is, though still time consuming, SO much easier, since I already have abundant materials gathered.

The two greatest benefits to me, as the preacher, are…

  1. Planning allows me to relax.  If my schedule in a particular week becomes overly squeezed, I don’t have to panic about what I will preach, or when I I’ll pull a sermon together.  It might still be a challenge to get it finished.  But, that’s WAY better than starting from scratch!
  2. Because I read five or six books during my planning week, I generally have a sufficient “chunk” of materials to work with for the entire year. Then, as I read more throughout the year, I can just read for my own personal enjoyment and fulfillment.  When I, inevitably, find something in my ongoing reading related to an upcoming sermon or series, I just open my Word Doc and make a reference.  I do the same when I get a new idea, or see something in Social Media, etc.  Throughout the year, my Word Doc gets fuller and fuller, richer and richer, both with info I’ve gathered from research AND materials that have spoken to me personally.

PLEASE HEAR THIS:  reading for pleasure and personal edification is MUCH richer sermon fodder than scrambling week by week to find another sermon topic, idea or illustration!

When I tell people about my process, many find it hard to believe a sermon planned a year in advance could still be relevant, pertinent, or Spirit-filled, a year later.

First of all, let’s never forget that God is omniscient.  If I approach this process prayerfully, and I do, then the Holy Spirit is fully capable of helping plan a year in advance.

Second, since I’m not actually writing the sermon until the week of, there’s still opportunity to make tweaks and adjustments to make certain the sermon is relevant to the moment.

Thirdly, just because I have a plan doesn’t mean I can’t toss it in the garbage if the Spirit leads me to preach something else.  This happens.  It happened on the Sunday following the Parkland shooting, last February.  But, thankfully, it doesn’t happen often.

My personal conviction is, planning does NOT inhibit the Spirit.  Instead, planning allows more room for the Spirit to lead and guide me to explore, process, and deepen my understanding of a particular topic or text, long before a particular sermon needs to be written.

So, preachers, raise the standard of your preaching!  How?  My advice is planning and preparation.  You may not like MY process.  But, you do need a process.  Plan as far ahead as you possibly can.  Take time – big chunks of time – to study and prepare.  Yes, your spiritual life if enormously important as well – there’s no substituting for that!  But, while I DON’T believe you can preach effectively, for long, with a shallow soul, I DO believe you can be deeply spiritual and still preach lousy sermons, due to lack of time, attention, and effort.  So yes, take care of your soul!  AND, take the time you need to prepare your sermons!

If you would like more details about my process, don’t hesitate to ask!

Preparing for Easter

Preparing for Easter

Though I’d already chosen the text and title for my Easter 2018 sermon, I really started working on the content of the message earlier today.

If you don’t preach, you might be surprised to learn that writing sermons for Easter and Christmas Eve are very difficult.  Why?  Everybody already knows the stories.  Even if you’ve never walked into a church before, Easter and Christmas are still likely to be stories you have some degree of familiarity with.  And, for many, attending an Easter service is little more than a holiday tradition.

Undeniably, it’s a great story!  In fact, it’s the greatest story we have to tell!  But, it’s so familiar.

I’ve preached at least 20 different Easter messages, and never the same one twice.  Each time, I’ve tried to find a new way to tell the same story of Jesus beating death, or to find a new meaning or a new application.  I’ve often looked for a new and novel angle – some years more successfully than others.

But, this Easter is different.  No novelty needed this year.  This Easter follows a Lent that began with a horrific Ash Wednesday tragedy – the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Though I sense all of us, in this community, are finding ways to return to “normal,” the tragedy is still in the daily news, and in some conversation, everyday.  You see “MSD Strong” t-shirts everywhere.  This Saturday, March 24th, many will be marching in this community and others, seeking change in our gun laws.  My point?  The tragedy is still on our minds, and the shadow of this tragedy still looms large over this community, and beyond.

As I am preparing this Easter sermon, I’m wondering…

  • What does this very old story have to say to this very current event?
  • What does the resurrection of Christ mean, not just theologically, but pastorally and practically, for those still struggling?
  • In the face of so much death and suffering, how do I speak of Christ defeating death?
  • How do we balance the sorrow we still feel, with the joyful celebration of Easter?
  • How do we find Easter hope, when it still feels like Good Friday?
  • What does it mean for Christians, who live in Coral Springs and Parkland, to be Easter people?
  • What do I have to say about Christ’s resurrection, to these people, at this moment, that I KNOW is true.

In last year’s Easter sermon, Pope Francis said, “The Lord is alive! He is living and he wants to rise again in all those faces that have buried hope, buried dreams, buried dignity.”  Undoubtedly, many who hear my Easter message will have “buried hope, buried dreams, buried dignity,” because of this specific tragedy, not to mention all of the other challenges and difficulties we all face every day.

I’m not quite sure how I will say it, yet.  But, Pope Francis’ statement captures the message I want to convey.  Yes, our hopes and dreams may feel buried right now.  In some cases, literally.  For many, it may feel like Good Friday for a long time.  But, Easter always follows Good Friday, and it always will.

Easter always has the final word.  There’s hope in that.

Now, back to sermon writing.

Preaching to Myself…

Preaching to Myself…

I start with an outline.

Then, I write a full sermon manuscript of what I plan to say.

Then, I condense the manuscript to notes that I will actually preach from.

On Sunday mornings, I get up and 5:00 am, and read my manuscript twice – sometimes out loud.  At 6:30 am, using my notes, I practice my sermon, out loud, at least twice.

Typically, I preach at three different services on Sunday mornings.

Now that I have this blog, I will post my sermon manuscript every week, which requires that I read it again and edit it according to what I actually said, or may have left out. My sermons do tend to “evolve” – hopefully improving… but not necessarily.

By the time I post a sermon manuscript, I have read it or said it at least eleven times.

Occasionally, on Sunday afternoons, Kelly (my wife) will ask me, “Did you listen to your sermon this morning?”  Yep!  Eleven times!  But, that’s not exactly what she means.

She knows me better than anyone.  She knows my struggles.  She knows that, sometimes, the things I preach with conviction to others, I sometimes struggle to accept for myself.

She asked me yesterday, dang it.

I preached, yesterday, that there’s no brokenness that Jesus cannot heal and restore.  I DO believe that.  I wouldn’t be in this job if I didn’t.  I’ve seen God do it.  But, truthfully, after so many years of living with chronic pain – which has been particularly awful recently – I get discouraged.  VERY discouraged.  The discouragement itself, apart from the physical pain, is also painful.  Even as I write this, I’m feeling pretty bad.

Do I BELIEVE God can heal my pain and discouragement?  Yes.  Of course.  Do I think he will?  Well…

I realize that sounds hypocritical.  I say I believe it, but do I really?  And, I know that sounds like I lack faith.  Maybe I do, at least as far as my own struggles are concerned.  I’m a preacher.  But, I am a VERY human preacher.

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus was approached by a father, whose son was tormented by a demon.  The father said to Jesus, “…if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”  To which Jesus replied, ‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”

I love the father’s response – “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

Yes, I DO listen to my own sermons – over, and over, and over.  I swear, I will never preach anything that I don’t believe with my whole heart.  But, listening isn’t always the same LISTENING!  Listening isn’t the same is believing.

I swear, I will also never preach that faith and hope and believing are easy.

“I do believe – please, Jesus – help me overcome my unbelief!”

(I’m sure some who read this will be concerned about me.  I’m ok.  Really.  I am.  No cause for alarm.  I’ve lived with pain for a long time, and life goes on.  I get up everyday, and do the best that I can.  There’s no need to worry about me, or ask me, “How are you feeling?”  And, as much as I appreciate the gesture, I’m not asking advice about medicine, supplements, treatments, etc.  I’ve tried EVERYTHING!  This isn’t a cry for help – really!  I’m not looking for sympathy.  This is just a preacher being honest!  I hope that’s ok.)