Had an interesting conversation with my staff today…we talked about the “HOW TO’s” of a Sunday Life Lesson. The “How To’s!” Now, don’t get me wrong, our staff is great but I love the fact that they are very candid and I must say we had a great talk. Unannounced to them, one of the criticisms that has been directed at me as a pastor is that “I tell people that they can CHOOSE to believe want they want.” REALLY. I did not know that! I just may have to go and sacrifice a cat now! (sarcasm)
Our conversation went further to the point that someone said that “people are so busy that they want leaders to do all the thinking for them.” So, as a pastor, my job is to do all the thinking for you and tell you what to think and do? WOW, is that cultish to the tenth degree or what?
I am of the mind that effective, biblical preaching taps into an innate longing by helping people envision what God created us to be in Christ. Some scholars have called this visionary preaching.
Visionary preaching is not content merely to instruct people in the ways of God, or to confront the sin in their lives and the world, or to exhort believers to do better and try harder. Visionary preaching empowers people to pursue God's better future by painting a vivid and compelling picture of that future with words, images, and stories and encouraging people to become more like Christ, the how’s are written between the lines.
Now, if I were to preach on tithing…wow…some of you just shuddered with that word, I could explain all the Old Testament foundations and commands of tithing and I could also draw from a more all encompassing giving approach based on New Testament examples… So, after I have finished preaching, I could assume that people would simply understand GOD’s expectations and they would make the effort to give MORE than 10% based on the great biblical exposition that I would be able to draw out (Simply an egotistical statement here used for emphasis). The other side is that I can try to guilt people into thinking that they are robbing God. In either case both of these approaches fail to understand how people grow.
I love what happened at Willow Creek a while back when they did a survey regarding the spiritual growth of their community. Those who described himself as “spiritually stalled” said that the reason was their failure to make spiritual growth a priority in their lives. WOW~ is this a reflection of our culture or what!?
I am of the mind that is it not that people so not know the HOW, simply put they do not want to grow. Spiritual growth is not necessarily a priority. How many of us know what to clean up in our lives, but we don’t. Let me rephrase that; WE SIMPLY DON’T! It is not a priority. You can say AMEN OR OUCH!!!!
The question is not the HOW TO the question is the WANT TO! I am of the mind that many know the HOW TO’s really we do! The question becomes do we really want to? I am of the mindset that people today have a renewed hunger for theology and an interest in the discussion of the mysteries of God. They are starving for depth in teaching and preaching and will not settle for shallow answers. I am of the opinion that pastors can no longer give simple messages on “3 Easy Steps to…” or “10 Rules for…” If one were to add up 52 sermons a year that the average church goer would hear; and presume that they have a minimum of “3 Principles” per message to apply to their life they would have to remember at least 156 different “rules” in order to be a good Christian every year. Dallas Willard calls this "sin management"—teaching people how to grow, exhorting people to grow more, and warning people what will happen if they don't grow and the problem with such preaching is that it causes listeners to fixate on their fallenness and failures, establishing a self-fulfilling prophecy that often leads to more and deeper failure.
Many pastors remind people of motivational speakers giving a lecture add to that the fact that the established church has tried to systematize God in order to understand Him and explain Him. Many times we have taken away the mystery as we have tried to rationalize God.
The seeker sensitive movement has made great strives to introduce topical messages that address the specific needs of the Baby Boomers; however, in this transition we have mistakenly taken the focus off God the provider and placed it on humans with themes such as “How to have a happy life,” or “How to be financially successful,” or “How to have a better marriage.” When we speak to people's intrinsic motivation and God-given longings, we don't need to "should" and "ought" them into obedience. I've found it's a lot more fun, and a lot more effective, to invite people to become the men and women they were created to be—and deep in their hearts, have always wanted to be.
I do not want to insult people’s intelligence or desire to have spiritual depth because people are hunger for a deep experience of God’s wisdom, and we must respect them enough to give it to them. I am of the mind that the church must constantly be retelling the whole story of God and his love for mankind from Genesis to Revelation by painting the big picture of the Bible story and telling it in as many ways as possible though preaching.
People want to learn about the God they seek to encounter. Dan Kimball in a lecture at Youth Specialties mentioned that he uses “theotopical” preaching. Kimball defined it as a mixture of both expository and topical preaching. It is expository in terms of doing the right exegetical work for biblically rooted messages, but at the same time it becomes an opportunity to shape a theological worldview for the hearers by telling the story. Every time one preaches they must clearly know what the concept is that they are trying to teach and how it fits into the grand story of scripture.
When Jesus wanted to describe the mysteries of the kingdom of God to the people who were following him he often used stories. He would communicate complex and potentially confusing ideas about the nature of God and his relationship with humankind in the most basic and simple stories. Today many churches have lost the ability to tell stories and instead have moved to tire their listeners with sermons full of lists, points and practical propositions (HOW TO’S).
Today the church must be able to have its listeners see that their story is part of a bigger story, God’s Story. Once we understand God’s story, then the listeners are in a better position to understand their own personal story and how they can personally experience change.
Unfortunately, most sermons, like the tithing examples above, fail to address the want-to factor in people's lives. Yes, our fallen nature and sinful tendencies need to be exposed and addressed. The harsh realities and inevitable disappointments of life should not be glossed over by eternal optimistic preaching. But when people are presented a compelling vision of what their lives can look like under the rule of God, they will be inspired to pursue that better future. It is not so much about the how to, it is all about…do we really want to!
Thoughts…or should I ask?