jasonbwatson

February 10, 2017

Deep Preaching

Christianity Today published some months ago a 64-page booklet entitled “The State of Church Ministry in America, 2017.” The note from the managing editor indicated that it was a special guide from CT‘s new resource, CTPastors.com.Now, I am not a pastor but for the past five years I have filled that role on many Sunday mornings for a number of churches. In addition to that, I have been a faithful church attendee just about my entire life and I have heard literally thousands of sermons preached. So, while I found a number of the articles in the booklet insightful, one that struck me as compelling was entitled “Deep Preaching in a Distracted Age” and was written by Matt Woodley, a missions pastor in Illinois and editor of PreachingToday.com.

Woodley’s thrust was how pastors can stay focused themselves and “capture people’s attention and keep it long enough for God to do his work”. I am going to take some of what he shared in the article as background, though, and focus instead on why deep preaching is so incredibly important.

Woodley writes that he sometimes has the spiritual attention span of a minnow after quoting poet Denise Levertov who wrote in one of her poems, “I stop to think of you [Lord], and my mind at once like a minnow darts away into the shadows.” Levertov and Woodley are not alone. A May 2015 article in TIME was entitled, “You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish,” and focused on a Microsoft study that revealed that most people lose focus after eight seconds. The world we live in feeds this rapid-fire, short-attention phenomenon. We communicate in text messages that we keep so short we cannot even use proper grammar or punctuation, quick status updates on Facebook, tweets on Twitter and scrolling headlines along the bottom of the news or sports channel.

According to a Smithsonian.com article in September 2016 approximately 27% of Americans had not read a single book in the previous twelve months. That is despite the fact that, according to Woodley’s article, an American on social media is exposed to 54,000 words every day. That is the equivalent of a 180-220 page book depending on font and margin sizes.Think about that: the average American on social media is exposed to the equivalent of a short book every day but more than a quarter of them do not read one complete book over the course of a year!

Woodley determined that the best way to counter this distractability is to go deep. I agree. He writes, “In a distracted, outraged, shallow culture, people begin to hunger for something rare: the focused, balanced, deep. Because we chronically distract ourselves, we crave depth. Deep preaching is our best chance to change lives.” I could not agree more.

I have no problem with a short devotional thought or even an occasional brief sermon. In general, however, it is clear that far too many Americans are spending far too little time going deep with God on their own–meaning we need to take them there while they are at church. An April 2015 post on the Preachers and Preaching blog from The Master’s Seminary cited a poll that indicated that the most common sermon length is between 20 and 28 minutes. I find that alarming–especially given that so many American Christians now go only to Sunday morning services. When I grew up we were in church Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday night. Now I will grant you that I cannot identify anywhere is Scripture that it says three services a week are required–or that Sunday school is. I do not think it is coincidental, however, that as Americans have become busier and more distracted the number of churches with Sunday evening and mid-week services has decreased and the depth of spiritual knowledge has declined. Even the interest in spiritual things has declined I dare say.

I think churches that are serious about the spiritual maturity of their members need to take seriously the importance of longer, more meaningful services–and sermons in particular. Of course there does come a point at which attention spans can diminish even when the speaker is engaging and the topic is exciting, but that point should easily be well beyond the 25 minute mark. College courses are typically taught in 50 or 75-minute blocks. Movies tend to be about two hours in length. There is no reason a pastor should not be able to command the attention of a congregation for 40-50 minutes easily. After all, there is nothing more important in the world than the subject he is teaching about, nothing more important the congregation could be doing than growing in their knowledge and understanding of God.

As I said, I preach regularly. The church where I have preached most consistently over the past five years has made it clear that I need not worry about time, and I have appreciated that. They take seriously the privilege of learning God’s Word. Not only do I tend to preach longer than the average (40 to 50 minutes is probably my typical sermon) but I usually address very small portions of Scripture when I preach. Once in a while I will do a topical message but my preference is certainly verse-by-verse expository preaching. An August 2013 article on The Christian Post cited a seminary student who argued for “shorter, more viral sermons,” around 18-minutes long. The individual claimed that if pastors would follow the example of Jesus’ own teaching, such as the Sermon on the Mount, they would keep their messages shorter and tighter. That struck me as ironic because I spent eighteen messages going through just Matthew 5–which represents only the first of three chapters that include the Sermon on the Mount. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, which is basically a written version of his own teaching on Matthew 5-7, runs nearly 600 pages long!

The Bible is practical and relevant to our lives. It is also deep, profound and at times difficult. It cannot be learned well in twenty-six hours a year (fifty-two thirty-minute sermons).

Pastors should not be long just for the sake of being long. No one wants fluff or space-filler or jokes or meaningless stories. But the Word of God is rich, powerful, deep and practical. Good churches should seek–dare I say demand–good preachers who spend the time necessary to understand and teach the Bible deeply, powerfully and practically. It can be done. I suspect pastors will even find that once people get past the initial unfamiliarity of deeper preaching that they will long for it. Just a couple of weeks ago I was teaching a Sunday evening class that was scheduled to go for 45 minutes. At the end of the allotted time I had not finished what I wanted to teach–partly because of questions and partly because there was so much to teach–and I asked if we should wrap it up or keep going. The consensus was keep going and not one person left. We went another thirty minutes. Now that was a one-time thing, but it proves the point that people do want meaningful teaching. They want to understand God’s Word and to know Him better.

Let this be a plea for deep preaching!

December 17, 2014

The Dones

In a recent column on ChurchLeaders.com Thom Schultz described the growing number of “Dones” in the United States. If this is not a term you are familiar with, you are not alone–I had never heard it either. In fact, it may be a term Schultz coined himself, but it references a group of people that are common enough that they are the subject of research by sociologist Josh Packard. The “Dones” are those individuals who are done with church. Say Schultz, “They’re sometimes called the de-churched. They have not abandoned their faith. They have not joined the also-growing legion of those with no religious affiliation—often called the Nones.” Instead, the have just up and quit, deciding they have had enough of church and they are not going to take it any more.

According to Packard, the “Dones” are often from the most dedicated and active people within their congregation. This begs at least one question in my mind immediately, in light of the oft-repeated assertion that in most churches ten percent of the people do ninety percent of the work. Are the “Dones” getting tired of doing all the work? In other words, are they getting burned out? Apparently not, according to Packard’s research cited by Schultz.

In his upcoming book Church Refugees Packard suggests that the “Dones” simply feel like they have heard it all before. Others are tired of being told how they are to live their lives. According to one of Packard’s interviewees, “I’m tired of being lectured to. I’m just done with having some guy tell me what to do.” Therein, of course, lies part of the problem. Effective preaching and church ministry has nothing to do with “some guy” telling anyone what to do, unless that guy is Jesus Christ. If the pastor is insisting that he has the authority to tell those in his congregation how to live their lives, then he is wrong and leaving the church is probably wise. If, however, the pastor is faithfully and consistently preaching and teaching the entire Bible, he will, necessarily, be touching on many areas that pertain to how Christians are to live their lives. This would not be coming from him, though; rather, he is simply communicating and explaining what the Bible says. If the issue, then, is not liking the idea that God both cares about how we live our daily lives and has a right to care about it then the real issue is the heart, not the church.

Schultz also writes of another reason the “Dones” might be done. “The Dones are fatigued with the Sunday routine of plop, pray and pay. They want to play. They want to participate. But they feel spurned at every turn.” This is an interesting idea and one that requires additional investigation. Perhaps Packard’s book will shed more light on what Schultz is getting at here. On the one hand, it seems to contradict the idea mentioned above, that the “Dones” are often coming out of the most active members of church congregations. If that is true, the suggestion that they do not get to participate does not make sense. On the other hand, if these individuals are tired of listening to “some guy” tell them how to live–in other words, if that is their heart attitude and their mindset–then having them become more participatory within their churches could be dangerous to the spiritual well being of the church. There are, after all, specific biblical requirements for church leadership and additional reasonable requirements for church volunteers and ministry leaders.

Packard, says Schultz, explains that churches are not likely to get the “Dones” back in church, and would be far better off focusing on not losing them in the first place than on getting them back. He suggests seven questions that church leaders should ask church members in order to help the church understand the needs of their congregations and meet those needs before their congregants flee.

Here are his questions:

1. Why are you a part of this church?
2. What keeps you here?
3. Have you ever contemplated stepping away from church? Why or why not?
4. How would you describe your relationship with God right now?
5. How has your relationship with God changed over the past few years?
6. What effect, if any, has our church had on your relationship with God?
7. What would need to change here to help you grow more toward Jesus’ call to love God and love others?

These are actually good questions. Much to my delight they are not focused on what would make anyone more comfortable. The last question is particularly poignant, but I would caution churches implementing this approach to couple it with another question: What would need to change in your life to help you grow more toward Jesus’ call to love God and love others? After all, there may well be things that the church could do differently in order to more effectively minister to its congregation and spur on their spiritual growth. At the same time, there is nothing any church can ever do to accomplish that growth if the real issue is within the heart and mind of the individual congregant and he has no interest in changing. If, in other words, he is tired of “some guy telling him what to do.”

If there are previously committed and active members of churches making a beeline for the exit and quitting church, we do need to be concerned. We do need to seek to keep them if they have not left and reach them if they have. Let us now, however, confuse ourselves into thinking that the fault is solely with the church.

January 9, 2014

My Year in Books – 2013

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I managed to keep my streak of reading fifty books per year intact in 2013, though I am not sure I would have done so had my wife not been hospitalized for sixteen days; I read ten books during that time! Given that I took two graduate classes during the summer of 2103 and traveled some 7,500 miles by car during my family’s two summer trips and read very little during that time I was prepared to excuse my falling short of the goal. I am glad I met the goal, though I would have preferred it to have been met in a different manner. But, without further ado, here is an overview of the fifty two books I read in 2013.

I think it’s fun to start my list with the first book I finished during the year. However, due to a computer crash suffered in the spring, the exact order of the first fourteen books I read is not known. Due to the fact that I am out in desperate need of more book shelves in my house and therefore stack most of the books in a pile as I read them these days, I do know what the fourteen books were, but I cannot guarantee the order. That’s because one of the books was loaned from a colleague and one or two others were already on a shelf and I put them back when I completed them. So, I will present my overview more by genre than by chronological order.

Let’s start with non-fiction, history. Ernest Grafe and Paul Horsted’s Exploring with Custer: The 1874 Black Hills Expedition is a fascinating book in that it provides a detailed overview of the 1874 expedition, including many first person and primary source accounts and photographs, but also provides contemporary photographs of the exact same spots and directions to get there. The result is that you could literally retrace Custer’s expedition yourself if you wanted to do so. I also read Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Last Stand. As Philbrick books go I liked it better than Bunker Hill and probably almost as much as Mayflower. It is a readable overview of the events leading up to, and including, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, including first person perspectives from both sides of that battle. If you have an interest in Custer personally or the conflict with Native Americans in general it is a good read. I also read Bunker Hill in 2013, by the way, and despite the fact that the American Revolution is perhaps the part of U.S. history that fascinates me most, and I even enjoy historical minutiae, I did not particularly enjoy this book. Though the specific reasons slip my mind at the moment I remember finding the book hard to get through and less than interesting in many parts. I can say the same thing for Kevin Phillips’ 1775. It was a book that I might not have even finished were it not for my conviction to never let a book beat me!

For those of you caught up in the international smash hit Downton Abbey you may enjoy reading Lady Fiona of Carnarvon’s Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey. I read it when my wife had finished it, and given that Lady Fiona is the current occupant of Highclere Castle (the setting of the show) she has access to a treasure trove of original documents and photographs. It was an interesting read, and she has a second book out now, continuing the exploration of the history of the castle and the families that have lived there. Another book I read that drew extensively from original documents and photographs was also loaned from a friend. E.M. Young: Prairie Pioneer tells the incredible story of one man’s pioneering farming experiences in the early 20th century.

I read David Montgomery’s The Rocks Don’t Lie in 2013, too, but I reviewed that at length in an earlier post, so I will not elaborate on it here.

I also read several biographies and autobiographies. Tony Bennett’s Life is a Gift is a fascinating look at his artistic life. Even if you do not particularly like Bennett (who I just realized, incidentally, I am listening to at the moment) his first-hand accounts of such now-hard-to-fathom incidents like seeing incredible and well known African American artists perform in clubs that they could not enter as patrons provide a unique perspective on that sad part of American history. David Green’s More Than A Hobby tells the story of the development of the Hobby Lobby juggernaut and the philosophies that have driven the Green family in its development. The book was written long before Hobby Lobby’s run in with the federal government over the contraceptive mandate but reading it leaves a good understanding of why the family would have challenged in the way that they did. Gracia Burnham’s books In the Presence of My Enemies and To Fly Again recount the experience of being taken hostage in the Philippines, the incredible ordeal she and her husband endured in their year-plus of captivity, and his death during the rescue (the first one) and the way in which her life has “moved on” since returning to the states and recovering from her injuries (including being short herself). Kisses From Katie by Katie Davis will no doubt leave you overwhelmed at the incredible things this young woman has done already to impact hundreds of lives in Uganda. The way in which the Lord has used her and the things that she has accomplished, and is doing, as a single young white woman in Africa will certainly prompt you to learn more about her Amazima Ministries, if not prompt you to take some action yourself! John Ownes’ Confessions of a Bad Teacher recounts the experiences of this publishing executive who decided to leave his skyscraper office to become a teacher in New York City. The book highlights the challenges faced by teachers everywhere when parents are absent or uninvolved but, even moreso, highlights the challenges teachers face when their administrators do not have the first clue about how what may seem like grand ideas or necessary policies actually play out in the classroom, and the challenges faced by teachers, students and parents alike when administrators are more concerned about rules than about students actually learning. The scenario Owens presents is not common, in my opinion, but he highlights important realities nonetheless. Finally, Malala Yousafzai’s I Am Malala provides a vivid first-person account of the realities of living in a region controlled by the Taliban and how incredibly repressive many of their rules are. That Malala survived when she was shot in the face is amazing, and she is an articulate advocate for education.

I actually read quite a bit of fiction in 2013. I made a conscious decision to read mostly fiction while my wife was in the hospital because I did not really feel like having to think too much! I also decided, thanks to the local library and the convenient proximity of a Barnes and Noble to the hospital, to read some authors I had never read before. So, by way of new-to-me authors, I read Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller, which I found to be a fascinating story and one that deals intriguingly with the question of forgiveness–what it is, who can give it, and more. There were parts of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief that I did not really care for or find necessary to the story, but in the end Zusak succeeds in presenting a very different kind of hero than is often seen in literature. Elliott Holt’s You Are One of Them was an interesting tale with an interesting perspective on Cold War U.S.-Soviet relations, from the perspectives of children becoming teenagers. Alafair Burke’s If You were Here has some nifty plot twists in it. While I have watched the show based on her books I had never read Tess Gerritsen until I read Rizzoli and Isles: Last to Die. Being familiar with a television version of characters before reading a book can have the same influence on the reader as being familiar with the book before seeing the movie or show can have on the viewer, but it was a good story overall. More than a few parts seemed a bit far-fetched but it is fiction, after all. I loved Mark Pryor’s The Bookseller, and I look forward to reading more of his Hugo Marston novels. Jonathan Cahn’s The Harbinger was given to me by a friend; it is not the kind of book I likely would have read on my own. It presented some interesting things, but it is correctly placed in the fiction section of bookstores. Chevy Steven’s Still Missing presents a graphic look at how we humans in our sin nature can get focused on things that really matter not at all and, as a result of that focus, can cause us to do things that no one in his or her right mind would ever even give a second thought. I also read two Robert Crais books, Taken and The First Rule. These are mostly typical crime drama/suspense books similar to many other authors.

My fiction reading was not limited to new-to-me authors, though. I read several books by those authors I tend to keep up with, too, including the following: Merry Christmas, Alex Cross; Alex Cross, Run; Private Berlin; NYPD Red; and Cross My Heart by James Patterson; The Racketeer, Theodore Boone: The Activist, and Sycamore Row by John Grisham; The Forgotten, The Hit, and King and Maxwell by David Baldacci; Best Kept Secret by Jeffrey Archer; and Threat Vector and Command Authority by Tom Clancy (with Mark Greaney). Clancy’s death late in the year means, I assume, that there will be no more true Clancy books (though there is always the possibility that he left behind some manuscripts) but I suspect it will not mean the end of Jack Ryan or The Campus.

Finally, in the area of spiritual growth, I read Jacqueline Pierre’s Totally Infatuated, a short book aimed mostly at teens (and Pierre is still a teen herself) highlighting the relevance of Scripture to our everyday lives; R.C. Sproul’s A Taste of Heaven and The Work of Christ; R. Albert Mohler’s Desire and Deceit (which I have also referenced in earlier posts); Joe Stowell’s Following Christ; John Piper’s God Is the Gospel, and Matt Chandler’s To Live is Christ, To Die is Gain. All of these books are very good and depending on where you are in walk with the Lord, what you want to focus on or dig deeper into may or may not be what you “need” right now, but Stowell’s book would be relevant and practical for any Christian at any stage of their Christian walk, I think.

So, there you have it, a quick run through of my year in books. Until next January…keep reading!

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