Sarcasm

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The other night I was watching an interesting documentary entitled, CNBC Originals: As Seen On TV. It was all about what they call “direct response infomercials.” You’ve seen them before, the Chia Pet, Ginsu Knives, weight loss programs, and the world-famous, if not embarrassing,ThighMaster hawked by former Three’s Company star, Suzanne Somers.

Now not so much with Snuggle, but particularly with the weight loss programs or exercise machines, the commercials are always filled with incredibly beautiful, ripped, slender people. And of course the idea is that if we use the product we can end up looking like them. But wait there’s more! In addition to these professional models, there typically are testimonials of normal people like you and I who used the product with great results. But wait there’s more! One thing all these type of commercials have in common is the small print. Somewhere, usually at the very bottom of the screen, you’ll notice the words “results are atypical.” This is how the manufacturers of these products protect themselves against lawsuits. If you complain to the company that you used their product but still don’t look like the models on their commercial they can say, “Well… It’s we said the results are atypical.”

This reminds me of the church growth conferences we go to or all the books we buy telling us how to grow our church. The speakers at these conferences and the writers of these books typically are those who have had great success in growing their church. And so they share with you how they did it, and the implication is that if you do what they did you’ll see what they saw. But wait there’s more! Their results are atypical. Most churches don’t grow and grow and grow. Most churches, at best, grow slowly, often times very slowly. Most churches grow to a certain size and then level off, shrink, maybe grow some more, stabilize, shrink, etc. These are the results that are typical.

Wouldn’t it be funny if behind the speaker at the conference the multimedia guy put up on the screen the words “results are atypical?” What if in part of the foreword to the book on how to grow your church there was a disclaimer “results are atypical?”

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I feel like I’m a silo that has been filling up with grain. Occasionally some is drawn out and used, but there must be a way to draw out more and share with the masses. But maybe I’m delusional. Everyone thinks they have something important to say, especially pastors, and most of the time, even if it is genuinely important, it is not original or…not really that important at all.

Our pride and good intensions trick us into believing our voice needs to be heard. Jan Johnson, in her book “Enjoying The Presence Of God, says: “We often think God is using us to reform the world when it’s only a matter of our wanting to ventilate our opinions.” Ouch.

We must be careful not to force the issue, take a sledgehammer to the side of the silo, or we might end up exposing others to stimulating but foolish or useless ideas that will only reinforce in their minds that which is foolish or useless. Or, and I’m not sure which is worse, we can expose others to our attempts to communicate important things when there are others far more eloquent and qualified to do so.

Some things are best kept to yourself. The trick is to know when to speak, when not to, and how. And…when tempted to pick up a sledgehammer, reconsider.

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On June 19th, 1966 Thomas Merton (writer, poet, anti-war/civil-rights activist, monk) wrote in his journal: “The most desperate illusion and the most common one is just to fling oneself into the mass that is in movement and be carried along with it: to be part of the stream of traffic going nowhere but with a great sense of phony purpose. It is against this that I revolt.”

I doubt that Merton was thinking of the church when he wrote this but his words made me think of the church. By church I don’t mean our local congregations or the people who attend them. I’m thinking more of the trends that confront pastors, the mass movements and streams we’re encouraged to step into. Consider if you will the last ten years. First we began hearing about Postmodernism and our need to redesign our churches to address this new cultural direction. (By the time the church discovered Postmodernism it was already beginning to die out as a trend, but that’s a whole other story.) “Postmodern” churches began to spring up. A Postmodern focus gave way to the Emerging Church, which was replaced as a focus by Missional churches. While all this was evolving we began to hear more and more about the House Church movement which is now being eclipsed by it’s newborn child, Simple Church.

I’m not against any of these “movements” per se. Each one is a legitimate expression of how one might choose to do church. What I am against, what I revolt against, is the message communicated by many (not all) within each of these movements that say, “Our model is the first century model. This is how church is supposed to be. Our way is the future of the church.” And then the kicker, “We can’t continue to do church the way we always have.”

Now if one is brave enough to ask, “Why not? Why can’t we continue to do church as we always have?” they will more than likely get, “Because church as we’ve always done it is not working.”  Usually the “mass movement” will define “working” as a lack of church growth, or so few coming to know Christ, or little true discipleship taking place.

First of all, church “as we’ve always done it” is “working” all over the place. And…there are plenty of examples of churches “as we’ve always done it” that aren’t working. But the same could be said of Postmodern churches, Emerging churches, Missional churches. Are they all working? Is every Simple Church or house church working?

First of all one must seek a definition of “working” that is biblical, which, of course every proponent of every movement believes they have done. But second, one must consider this. Is it possible that the reason why some churches are in decline or are not growing has very little to do with the style they have embraced, or not embraced? Could it be that churches find it difficult to win people to Christ and make genuine disciples simply because it’s hard?

If you’ve pastored longer than three months you’ve discovered that it’s hard. It’s hard to win converts, make followers of Jesus, and grow a church. It’s hard regardless of the stream you step into or the movement you follow. It’s hard. And if it’s been hard for very long, you begin to think, “This is hard. This isn’t working. What am I doing wrong? What is working?” And as soon as you begin to think this way, some mass movement will sound pretty good.

Maybe the answer isn’t the latest hot-trend in how to do church. Maybe the answer is…it’s hard!

 

 

So I’m talking to  a friend of mine who pastors a church of about 100, one state over from mine. He tells me that he and a group of pastors in his city, all of which have churches of about 100, were invited over to the church of this guy who has a church of 1500. The guy tells them he’d like to have them over for lunch, show them his building, and share some things with them. So they all go over there, get a tour and some beef stroganoff from the deli next door. After which the pastor of the big church proceeds to share with them how they can get their church to grow big like his. I’m thinking to myself: How condescending.

Why did this guy think the other pastors would want to come over to his place, see his building, listen to him share with them? I wonder what would have happened if my friend with the church of 100 had invited the big guy over to see his building, would he have taken the time to come? I wonder how the big guy would have felt if my friend shared with him the advantages of pastoring a smaller church, how he became a small church pastor and the seven steps to shrinking your church down to 100?

I don’t know, maybe it’s just me.

I need to calm down.

Could someone bring me a paper bag to breathe into?

A a number of years ago I did something I never dreamed possible. I donated all of my commentaries and bible study helps to my alma mater. There were a few really old or rare volumes that I kept for sentimental reasons or in hopes of impressing someone in the future who might see my personal library, but other than that, I boxed them up and dropped them off. I must admit, as I walked away I had mixed feelings. I felt like a parent abandoning their child on someone’s doorstep.

There were two reasons why I gave a big portion of my library away. First, online bible study helps were becoming so abundant that I hardly needed to open “real” books anymore. And second, I discovered that I so seldom needed to turn to commentaries in order to put together a good sermon that they didn’t justify the space they were taking up on my bookshelves. On those rare occasions that I needed to look something up I could do so online. Here are some random thoughts, in no particular order, I have about commentaries and the place they play in sermon preparation.

If you spend more than an hour a week reading commentaries you’re probably spending too much time reading commentaries.

If you already have a Bachelors or Masters in Bible & Theology, or something similar, you’ve probably been exposed to an adequate amount of bible and theology classes and hours of commentary reading will probably not result in you discovering anything new, i.e. “new” from a scholarly, commentary, academic point of view. If you do learn something new (and there’s always something new) the practicality of it will probably not be so great as to justify the time spent.

Assuming that you have some type of formal training in Bible and Theology, the only time you might want to turn to a commentary is if you are dealing with a controversial or difficult passage and you feel a need for some other opinions on the passage.

If you have no formal training in Bible and Theology then go to the local Christian book store and find a few commentaries designed for laymen. These volumes are easier to understand, typically make the application for you, contain all the important stuff, and are less expensive than the larger more scholarly commentaries.

When you need input from commentaries then take advantage of the free tools online. You’ll save time and money. Here are my five favorite “Online Bible Study Tools” resource websites. You might have one that I’ve left out but I’ve found that these five have just about everything you might need to prepare a good sermon.

1. The Online Bible Project.

2. StudyLight

3. Crosswalk.com

4. Blue Letter Bible

5. BibleGateway.com

Discover which website is good for what. For example, one site might be good for commentaries and another good for concordance. One might be strong if you’re looking for a parallel bible while another one excels in Greek and Hebrew. One might have a better selection of word study helps or Bible dictionaries than another.  Once you’ve discovered the strengths of each website create a link to each one, change their names to reflect what you’ll use them for, i.e. commentaries, bible dictionaries, Greek, etc., and put them all in a folder on your desktop. And there you have it, your own custom library.

So I’m on this website with information on an up-coming national pastors conference. Listed were all the main speakers with a little bit of information on each one. So far, so good. And then…there it was. I’d hoped that maybe this time they’d leave it out, but apparently they just couldn’t resist. Along with the description of each of the speakers was the size of their church. And you guessed it. They all had huge churches.

Why did they feel a need to include that? Why does it seem like speakers at conferences always are the ones with big churches? When was the last time you attended a conference and one of the main speakers was the pastor of a small church? How does it make the pastors of normal size churches feel when all they ever hear from at conferences are pastors of abnormal sized churches? Is it possible that the pastor of a small church might have something important enough to say to be a “main speaker” at a national conference? But then again, would anyone come to a conference whose line up was made up of unknown small church pastors?

I can feel my blood pressure rising. The room is spinning. Just dialed 911. Can’t complete sen…

1. The back door can be closed.

2. Teaching on stewardship results in increased giving.

3. If you work really hard you can grow your church.

4. Great preaching and great music will bring great growth.

5. People with a background in business are the best people to have on your church board.

6. “missional” is new.

7. Traditional church models are automatically ineffective.

8. Mission statements are really important.

9. Pastors of larger churches must know something pastors of smaller churches don’t.

10. Formal church memberships result in greater commitment.

11. If you have a clear and well-articulated vision your church will grow.

12. Outreach events result in church growth.

13. The “attractional model” isn’t working anymore.

14. In order for an older pastor to attract a younger crowd he need to look and sound cool.

15. If a church isn’t growing there must, must be something wrong.

16. Every once in a while it’s good for a pastor to insert a moderate curse word into his sermons. This will communicate that he is cool and contemporary, and radical.

17. Parishioners will follow the example of their pastor.

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