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Monday, December 22, 2014

Resetting our Defaults

If only it were as simple as pushing three keys ...
What does your church do on Sunday mornings?

I’ve been thinking about platform ministry. Each church has its own default set of practices observed week after week (with the exception of churches that meet in living rooms and basements and don’t have platforms) and, other than in the case of brand new churches, the choices that go into how teaching and preaching get presented are rarely conscious ones. They are more often the result of time, tradition and imitation of formats perceived to be successful in other churches.


I’m thinking of things like the length of time a speaker is allotted, whether interaction with the audience is permissible, the sort of subjects that are open for exploration from the platform and the sort that aren’t, the way in which the speaker presents himself both in terms of dress and conduct, the way in which the messages themselves are structured, and all sorts of other features that go into Sunday morning meetings.

Such things, since they do not derive authority directly from scripture, ought to be regularly open to reexamination to see if they are helping or hindering the church.

Keeping a Schedule

Once it has been established that a meeting runs from, say, 11 a.m. to noon, I believe it is very unwise to make a habit of running overtime. If outsiders are invited to hear a message, it is important to give them exactly what has been promised, if only in the interests of establishing that we are trustworthy and dependable.

This is basic Christianity. After all, one who is faithful in little is faithful in much. If we cannot keep our word about small things, nobody will believe we can do so when more important matters are at stake. The apostle Paul felt it necessary to explain his apparent failure to keep his promises. If keeping his word in such small things were an unreasonable expectation, Paul would surely not have explained it. We should not consider failing to keep our word something to simply brush off. 

Further, running overtime to finish a message is largely a pointless exercise. You lose your audience the second clock-watchers realize what time it is. And not all of these are unspiritual people. Your listeners may have made a commitment for which they will now be late, or they may be distracted by the sound of kids who have been released from Sunday School on time running and shouting in the basement or parking lot. It’s not unthinkable that a message a speaker really enjoyed preparing is not communicating quite as well as he thinks it is. And okay, a few in the audience are wondering whether they will miss the kickoff of the early NFL game. Whatever the reason, you’ve lost a significant chunk of your audience and every moment you push on past the appointed hour decreases the level of goodwill and attention in the room. Whether we like it or not, these are the facts.

To be fair, running overtime is not always the fault of the speaker. Sometimes grand productions are made out of the introductory minutes of a meeting and leave the speaker shortchanged on the time he has been promised and stuck with more material than he can possibly present. Those who are responsible for opening need to be sensitive to the passage of time and manage themselves accordingly. That being said, the speaker always has the last word. I’ve had to cut messages in half in order to close within a minute or two of the time allotted.

I’m not sure anyone noticed.

If the timing of the meeting’s end is going to be left to the whims of the speaker, it is better to manage expectations by saying so up front so that people can make their plans accordingly. It is also reasonable to close the meeting in prayer on time, dismiss those who have to leave for various reasons (making it clear that they are not perceived as second-class spiritual citizens by so doing), and carry on with those interested and available to stay behind and hear the rest of the message.

This sort of rigidity is certainly not necessary in every meeting of the church, but wherever the public is welcome and a finishing time has been advertised, the Christian thing to do is to keep our word about it, even if on occasion that proves inconvenient or means a message gets cut short.

We ought to be people of our word, in big things and small.

The Use of Illustrations

A good illustration is not merely an interjection of pathos or humour into an otherwise boring 45 minute monologue. A story can sometimes make one’s meaning clear in a way that mere repetition or rephrasing cannot. The Lord used parables and metaphors almost every time he spoke and the apostles continued this tradition in their letters, so many preachers, pastors and teachers have attempted to follow their example.

When an illustration is well chosen and serves the point being made, it adds value. But some speakers feel compelled to start every message with an attempt at humour, whether or not their joke relates to the content of their message. Others tell stories that are supposed to be factual to make a point. This is fine when the speaker gets the story right, but too often what they offer is an interjection of unrelated warm fuzziness that feels good but adds nothing to what is being said. It is even worse when the audience has heard the same anecdote from a different speaker with a different set of alleged facts.

Every illustration in scripture is aptly chosen. None is superfluous. Ours should be selected with the pattern of the Lord and the apostles in mind, not simply to provide comic relief or focus attention.

Be Imitators of Me

While styles of speaking may differ between individual churches, most Christians have gotten used to a particular mode of presentation and may become resistant to speakers who take them out of their comfort zone. Churches that employ a pastor generally have a more predictable format. A seminary graduate who lays out every message with an introduction, three points and a conclusion is following a pattern that is based less on scripture than on English high school curriculum.

But hey, we’re used to it. There is no reason every message must follow a formula, but we are creatures of habit. We like rules, and imposing a structure on what we are saying keeps us from wandering all over the map.

But go and look at some of the New Testament messages. They are wonderfully organic; invariably tailored to the particular audience to whom they are addressed and as different from one another in their structure, length and progression of argument as they are from, say, a high school essay:

·         Some are triggered by a question, like Philip’s answer to the Ethiopian eunuch and the Lord’s answer to the disciples’ request “Teach us to pray”.

·         Some start with a specific passage of scripture, like Peter’s message in at Pentecost, where he applied Joel’s prophecy to the present experience of his audience (and even answered questions at the end).

·         Some use an overview of scripture to make a point, as in Stephen’s survey of Israel’s history during his trial, in which he teases out a particular narrative thread (Israel’s persistent rejection of all God’s messengers) and ties it all together to great effect in his last few sentences.

·         Some, like Paul’s message in Pisidian Antioch, start by first establishing a backstory and then supplying new information, continue by tying the two things together and finally by finishing with an appeal to the conscience of their hearers. 

My point is that not one of these messages has an introduction, three points and a conclusion and all of them are demonstrably “of the Holy Spirit”.

Conclusion

Preaching and teaching are not secular undertakings, they are spiritual ones. An effective speaker in business circles does not necessarily make an effective gospel preacher. A diploma from a seminary is no indicator of a spiritual teaching gift.

I have heard skilled orators that excited and moved me but upon attempting to analyze what they had actually said, realized there was no “there” there. Their sermons were pretty packages devoid of meaningful content. Likewise, I have struggled through laboriously-delivered messages from men who were not trained speakers, but found their reflections had genuine and lasting spiritual value. Obviously neither situation is ideal.

My fellow blogger Immanuel Can is a little less resigned to the Sunday morning status quo than I am. He believes there are good reasons to not just tweak our platform techniques but to thoroughly and completely reexamine the methods by which we communicate to one another in church. He thinks there are serious believers out there willing to consider it.

Nothing would make me happier than for IC to be proved right about that.

But regardless of whether we continue to pursue the traditional evangelical teaching formats or rethink them entirely, it is only to extent that the form, content and rationale for platform ministry derive their authority from scripture that we can really be confident we are actually hearing the voice of God and not just a polished and persuasive facsimile.

3 comments :

  1. 1 Cor 14:35 implies that there is a time during meetings of the local church when it is acceptable for men to ask questions. This too is a NT church practice. I would suggest that if a church never has a time when brothers can ask questions, then that church is not fulfilling the intent of 1 Cor 14, regardless of what the sisters in the church do.

    However there are some practical controls that are needed if having a discussional study or a Q&A time. It assumes that the Bible teachers are sufficiently well developed as to be able to answer the questions that might reasonable be raised. It assumes that the elders of the church are prepared to deal with brothers who will take this as an opportunity to push their pet doctrine, or to take over the platform to introduce their own monologue.

    All that said, I haven't given up on the traditional model of preaching. I do believe that we should aim for excellence in Bible teaching. Unfortunately young men tend not to get feedback on their preaching, or specific training. So if a young man happens to preach a perfect sermon the first time, and manages to avoid a score of different classical mistakes, then all is well. But if his sermon is not perfect, or if he commits any of those classical mistakes, then the church will need to live with this problem for another generation, because nobody was willing to give honest feedback.

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    1. Good thoughts with respect to the questions, Shawn. I'd go a longer way down that road from the same passage you quote: Verse 32 says "the spirits of the prophets are subject to prophets", which some take to suggest that those who speak should have their own spirit under control. Context, however (it comes directly after "Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent"), suggests to me that what is really being said here is that we ought to give way to one another, or to paraphrase it, "the spirits of the prophets are subject to OTHER prophets".

      I think that provides the first clue as to the direction we need to go. Many of us who have been in open Bible studies have encountered the problem of men speaking "out of turn", with a completely unrelated anecdote or natural (as opposed to spiritual) thought. Such interruptions can completely derail any profitable consideration of scripture.

      But it is "prophets" to which the spirits of prophets are to be subject, not to every man in the assembly who is fond of the sound of his own voice. I would suggest that we need to recognize teaching gift and decide who has it and who doesn't (not minimizing the value of those who don't, of course, their gifts are equally valuable but in different ways and situations in church life). Then, having established who the teachers are, we need to allow them time to comment on and question anything that has been said.

      Now THAT, I think, would make for some truly profitable study. It would be hard on the ego at first, because we men are used to speaking without being publicly challenged. It seems to me that is probably not a Christian spirit, but rather a natural one, and that we need to learn to have our views modified by the application of other scriptures, or to be strong enough in our convictions that we can make a case for our original point when questioned about it.

      More to be said on that subject, to be sure ...

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  2. Some questions for elders serious about making sure the Christians in their charge are really learning:

    1. What do our people know about the Lord and His Word right now?

    2. What do our people *not* know or do right now?

    3. What ought to be our priority to teach in our overseeing of the feeding of the flock?

    4. Which of the available strategies we could have (sermon, guest speaker, Sunday morning classes, study group, home study, Bible class, video material, modelling, diagramming, work project, conference, retreat, personal study plan,...and so on) would be most effective in moving people from knowing these particular things they do not now know to understanding them well?

    5. How will we (the elders) find out if our people really are learning and benefiting from the way we're teaching? How will we know when they really understand and start to apply what we're teaching?

    6. How can we further modify our methods to improve the edification of the local assembly if we happen to find out that in some area they're not really benefitting, growing and being edified as we had hoped?

    My thought here would be that this sort of process would be the minimum a group of elders would want to undertake if they were genuinely serious about their responsibility to oversee the flock and feed the sheep. After all, what shepherd wouldn't ask, "When did the sheep last eat?" "When will they need to eat again?" "Where is there some good food?" "How will I know when they are healthy and well fed?" and "What do I do if some are looking a bit hungry or sickly?"

    Right now, though, I think the most common question on elders' minds is "Who's going to do the sermon?" And even this question they don't even have to ask if they've already bought themselves a "pastor."

    So maybe the place some elders really need to begin is to ask themselves, "How long has it been since we even asked ourselves what our people do or do not need?"

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