The Problem with Planning

Some years ago, Jill and I decided to ride our tandem from Western Michigan (where we were living at the time) to her childhood home in upstate New York. We didn’t have an exact route in mind. Instead, we gave the atlas a cursory glance before tossing it into our bike trailer with the rest of our gear and figured we would find our way. (This was a rather significant step forward in planning from a previous tour around Lake Michigan when we left our map sitting on the kitchen table.) “The way I figure it,” I said to Jill as we packed our bags and prepared for our departure, “if we cover sixty-five miles a day we should easily be there within a week.”

When we finally rolled into my in-laws’ driveway one week–and some seven hundred miles–later, it was quite clear that I had figured wrong.

All this is to say that I’m not much of a planner. But I also recognize that a little planning can save a lot of trouble.

I’m trying to remember that as I set out to do one of my least favorite tasks: planning my preaching schedule for the coming year. At First Denver, “planning the calendar” means deciding on an overarching theme for the church year (e.g. “God’s Peculiar People”), then settling on different sermon series for different blocks of the church year (e.g. “Peculiar Habits”) and then identifying specific text and themes for each week. In the ideal world (though not often in the real one–much to the chagrin of my worship planners!), this is all done several months ahead of time (if not more). As I’ve mentioned, it is not a job I relish–but it is one that I recognize as valuable. Among other things, planning ahead allows:

*Leaders of other church programs (from Magnify to Cadets to Adult Sunday School) to coordinate their themes with those being addressed on Sunday morning.
*Worship planners to provide special elements in the worship service (from organ preludes to dramas to sanctuary decorations to choral numbers) that compliment theme of the sermon.
*Preachers (in this case–me) to save time (and frustration!) by collecting illustrations and insights on the text/theme well before sermon writing day and by picking out the text in advance (I learned early on that a great way to waste my time is to crack open the Bible on Tuesday morning unsure of what text I hope to preach the following Sunday.)
*Worshipers to connect each Sunday with a broader theme and reflect on a certain aspect of their lives with Christ over an extended period of time.

Clearly, there are benefits to planning–and I part of me wishes that I had the brain power to plan several years in advance.

And yet–part of me continues to resist planning (at least as I currently try to do it). Admittedly, that is partially due to my personality, partially due to the fact that that there is no sermon series (and for that matter, no sermon!) as perfect as the one that has not yet been committed to paper. But I have a more serious concern, too: I wonder if my approach to planning presumes upon the text. That is to say: when I choose a text because I believe what it says fits into a series, which in turn fits into a broader theme–and do all this before taking time to immerse myself in the text and listen to what it says, I have not allowed the text to speak on its own terms.* I have short-circuited the possibility of new discovery, removed the opportunity to be surprised by the text.

In one of her books, Barbara Brown Taylor describes her sermon writing process. She writes:
“…I never know [before I study the text] what I will preach. If I did, then my sermons would be little more than lessons, expositions of things I already know that I think my listeners ought to know too…I do not want to scatter pearls of wisdom from the pulpit; I want to discover something fresh–even if I cannot quite identify it yet, even if it is still covered with twigs and mud. I want to haul it into the pulpit and show others what God has shown me, while I am still shaking with excitement and delight.
The process of discovery begins with the text. Whether I like it or not, I approach it believing that God is in it and I commence the long, careful discipline of panning for gold…”
(The Preaching Life, pg. 86)

Taylor’s words describe some of my greatest hopes–and my greatest fears–for my preaching. They also leave me wondering what to do next. What do you think?

If you spend your Sunday mornings in the pulpit:
*Are there ways to hold on to the benefits of planning while avoiding the potential perils? In other words, is there a way to plan that allows the text to remain primary? What process do you use?

If you spend your Sunday mornings in the pew:
*Do you find it helpful when a sermon is connected to a broader series? Why or why not? What makes a “good” sermon series?

If you are either a preacher or pew sitter:
*Have you had experiences (positive or negative) with the lectionary or preaching straight through books? How does this approach compare with a more “topical” approach (In other words, how might a series marching through the Gospel of Luke compare to a series on “FAQs” or “Taking God to Work”?)

* This assumes that I’m not pulling from a mental file of previously researched texts. (After nearly seven in one congregation, this is increasingly difficult– unless I preach the same texts repeatedly.)


Check Your Posture

Yelp reviewers gave the church four and a half stars. When we entered on Sunday morning we could see why: from the warm welcome we received from a volunteer named Bob (“Here’s your welcome packet–don’t forget there’s a coffee coupon inside. Now let me show you to the nursery.”), to the topnotch childcare facility (complete with playground, automated check-in services, and a separate stage with an big screen TV and a child-size drum kit so that each age group could have their own worship time), to the professional lighting and set design on the stage in the main auditorium, to the well-polished band that managed to stay perfectly in sync with each other and the Power Point (no typos on the slides here!), to the well-honed delivery of well-tanned pastor–every thing was perfect. Or at least perfect enough to merit four and half stars.

And yet, as good as it all was, I couldn’t help but wonder. Was it working? Was it working for those inside the congregation? Yes, the auditorium was full, but were these people being effectively discipled? Where all efforts of this church helping them become more like Jesus? (These are questions that haunt me about my own ministry, too!) And what about those “outside”? Almost everything about our Sunday morning experience–from the music to the childcare facility to the sermon series (Celebrate Families!) to the coffee bar in the lobby–suggested that this congregation saw reaching young families as a core part of its mission. So, were their efforts paying off?

To be sure, I can’t claim any deep knowledge of this congregation. My experience was limited to a single Sunday morning–a few hours if you count the extra time we spent on the playground. But when I looked around the packed auditorium, I was struck by the fact that the average age of those gathered appeared closer to seventy than to thirty. In fact, at least three fourths of those gathered for worship looked as though they might be taking the bus back to the local retirement home for lunch after the service. Perhaps things were different in the 8:00 or the 11:00 services–but in the service I attended the answer to my second question seemed quiet clear: No, it was not working.

It was a sobering realization. I serve a congregation that also seeks to serve and minister to young families. We have a few already–but we’d love to have a few more (especially those who do not have any meaningful connection with a church–or with the King of the Church)! When we think about how we might attract more of them, it is easy for us to think that if only we could deliver a better Sunday morning product–if we could hire a drummer and rehearse the band a little longer and find a more interesting preacher and spice up our kid’s programs–then things would take care of themselves. But here was a church that was doing all that–and doing it well (did I mention the well-deserved four and a half stars?)–and it wasn’t working. If it wasn’t working for them, is there any hope for the rest of us?!

Somewhere around the preacher’s third point, my mind wandered to a chapter I had read the previous day in Hugh Halter’s book The Tangible Kingdom. (What can I say, I’m not very good at listening to sermons. I guess I am out of practice.) In the book, Halter argues that highly polished programs and five-star religious products within the church are not the key to attracting people to the good news. Instead, it is our body-language–our posture–when we are outside the church that matters most. If we want people to be drawn to Jesus (and into the fellowship of those who love Jesus), they must see us stooped in service with him, washing the feet of a hurting world. They must see us leaning into the kingdom of justice and mercy and wholeness. They must see us bending over, shouldering our crosses and following him.

That doesn’t sound easy. But it does sound like something that just might work. And by the grace of God, it does sound like there just might be some hope for the rest of us.

*What do you think?
*Who has made the Kingdom-Life attractive to you?
*How can (or does) your church community reflect the beauty of Jesus’ death and resurrection in tangible ways?
*How is your posture?

Without Shame

And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed. – Genesis 2:25


Lifebuoy adOne of my favourite radio programs is the CBC’s “Under The influence” (formerly “The Age of Persuasion”) hosted by Terry O’Reilly .  O’Reilly gives both an exposition of the tricks of the trade in the world of advertising and an exposition of human gullibility.  More often than not I am stunned at how we are subtly (and not so subtly) shaped by commercial means.  One of the shows that recently caught my attention was an episode entitled “Shame: The Secret Tool of Marketing.”  He says,

“The strategy of “shame” is one of the most powerful marketing tools in modern times. Fear of being judged by our peers has led to billions of dollars of products being sold.  Social embarrassment isn’t just a mix of humiliation, mortification and distress, it’s also a heady cocktail of marketing, strategy and product solutions. And the marketing industry has a vested interest in keeping shame alive and well.”

listerine ad %22how's you breath today-%22For example O’Reilly traces is the use of deodorant.  Before the 20th century deodorant wasn’t something used by your average person.  Through the use of advertising the suggestion was planted that people around you are judging you based on your smell.  Almost overnight people began to buy deodorant because body smell was something to be ashamed of.  Or how about mouth wash.  Listerine was originally used as a floor cleanser but it was discovered that it could kill oral germs.  The only problem was that no one was worried about bad breath.  Listerine created advertising about the problem of “halitosis” and a new market for mouth wash was created.  Before 1960 people didn’t worry about dandruff, but advertising taught us that it is something to be ashamed of and Head Shoulders was there to solve our “problems.”  It took Wisk almost 10 years to convince us that “ring around the collar” was an embarrassment, but they got there.  The list goes on.

What is most shameful appears to be the ease in which we sink into and hold onto shame.

At the end of Genesis 2, the end of the narrative of scripture which is traditionally labeled as “Creation” (a good and perfect creation) the statement is made that “the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.” (Genesis 2:25) At the pinnacle of beauty, relationship and order this incredible statement describes a world without shame.  We then read in the next chapter that when humanity felt the need to be all knowing, to be like God, the first consequence was…shame – “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. (Genesis 3:7)

And so began life with shame.  But it is not something to accept.  Salmon Rushdie once wrote, “Shame is like everything else; live with it for long enough and it becomes part of the furniture.” (“Shame”)  We accept so many of the lies culture tells us, everything from believing that our children will grow up undeveloped if we don’t put them in umpteen activities to the belief that your front lawn isn’t good enough if it sprouting dandelions or that being sweet 16 and never kissed as being a bad thing (and we’re not talking about mom and dad’s loving pecks on the cheek).   These lies are based in the shame of not being good enough.  So many of us have learned to live with shame and it is to the detriment of the goodness of creation and the glory of God.

0609forgiveness2The apostle Paul writes to the Philippian church, “For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. (Philippians 3:18-21)

Without getting into a full exposition of this passage, the line that jumps out for me is the comment of “their god is their belly and their glory is in their shame.”  Where do we find our glory?  Are we content to bow to shame?  Too often we seem to settle into the very things we have been sold as worthwhile and important.  We wake up in the morning more worried about body odor, bad breath and grey hair than enjoying the fruit of the creation and the freedom to walk with God…as he made us, beautiful, original, and in his image.  Our lives and our identities are not defined by shame and the judgment of others but by a generous God who is constantly transforming us by his spirit.  If we understand heaven correctly as not just a place of clouds and harps, but a restored creational order, then we live the future in the present, we strive for more of heaven on earth, we work towards “the man and his wife [being] both naked, and…not ashamed.”