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?

Praying for your Pastor

Lifted this from the folks over at The Twelve.  Not a bad place to start if you want to know how to pray for your pastor.  (And please, pray for your pastor!)

Dear God, bless our pastor.
Encourage him* with Your word.
Comfort him with Your songs.
Refresh him with Your living water.
Empower him with Your truth.
Clothe him with Your strength.

Make room in his spirit for more of Your Spirit.
Give him the heart of a careful vinedresser.
The task is not easy and pruning is painful.

Loosen the soil of our hearts
So that Your Word, as spoken through him,
Would be a seed in fertile ground;
Your love, as evidenced by him,
Would water the seedling;
Your strength, as seen in him,
Would bring new growth to dormant lives;
And Your perseverance, as demonstrated by him,
Would yield a bountiful harvest of grain to be
Ground, mixed and kneaded
For the nourishment of souls beyond his reach.
In Jesus’ name, the Bread of Life, we pray.  Amen.


*Please pardon the non gender-inclusive language.

You Gotta Love the Church

“You gotta love the church.”

That was the simple–and sincere–advice a mentor gave me when I started ministry.  But these days, it sounds more like the kind of statement that would serve as a punchline to someone’s church horror story.  The kind of thing that would be accompanied by the dismissive wave of a hand.  A rolling of the eyes.  A shaking head.  Pfft.  You gotta looove the church.”  

Fifteen years ago, the author Anne Rice was best known for her vampire novels.  But then she grabbed headlines when she announced that she had converted to Christianity.  (She was viewed, it seems, as an unlikely convert!)  Ten years later, Rice was in the headlines again.  But this time, it was her declaration that, while she remained committed to Christ, she was leaving the church.  Rice posted her decision on Facebook.  She wrote: It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group.  For ten years, I’ve tried….Today I quit…My conscience will allow nothing else.”  

Anne Rice isn’t the first (or the last) person to shake the dust off her feet and walk out of church–even while claiming to follow Christ.  (Her Facebook post received several thousand “likes’!)  And to be sure, while Rice may come off as a tad self-righteous (even about the self-righteousness of others!), there is some element of truth in her critique.  The church is far from perfect.  I suspect that nobody knows that better than the people who work in the church!  But is it right for us to to storm away in disgust?  To focus only on her flaws?

A few years ago, a friend of mine was having trouble with her mother-in-law.  And I mean big trouble.  One Friday evening after a tense supper, things came to a head.  My friend’s mother-in-law sat her and her husband down at the kitchen table and pulled a small black notebook out of her purse.  She opened it and began to read.  My friend sat in stunned silence as she realized the notebook contained a catalogue of all her shortcomings and failures (at least all of them her mother-in-law could think of). The torturous litany of sins went on for several agonizing minutes until finally, my friends husband took her hand in his, gazed across the table and said, “Mother.  Stop it.  She is my wife.  She is my wife. And I love her.”   

The church is not perfect.  And God does not put his stamp of approval on every crusade, or lousy sermon, or thoughtless act She commits in his name.  And yet, he still calls her his “bride.”  So maybe next time we’re tempted to dismiss her with a contemptuous wave, maybe we need to here Christ say: She is my wife. She is my wife. And I love her.”

He loves the church.  In fact, he loves her enough to die for her.  And that means we’ve gotta love her, too.


The Church (Derek Webb)

I have come with one purpose
to capture for myself a bride
by my life she is lovely
by my death she’s justified

I have always been her husband
though many lovers she has known
so with water i will wash her
and by my word alone

So when you hear the sound of the water
you will know you’re not alone

‘Cause i haven’t come for only you
but for my people to pursue
you cannot care for me with no regard for her
if you love me you will love the church

I have long pursued her
as a harlot and a whore
but she will feast upon me
she will drink and thirst no more

So when you taste my flesh and my blood
you will know you’re not alone

There is none that can replace her
though there are many who will try
and though some may be her bridesmaids
they can never be my bride

Not Okay

Jake slumped in his chairs, drummed his fingers nervously on the table in front of him. He was in my office, trying to explain why church–especially this church–wasn’t for him. It wasn’t the music. Or the coffee. The people were friendly. The preaching tolerable. So what was the problem?

“Well, Pastor,” he said. “It’s just that the people here are so…so…so good! I’ll never fit in!”

I tried to laugh his comment off. Told him he only needed to get to know folks a little better–then he’d learn the truth. But the fact was, Jake’s words got to me.

Six and a half years ago–when I was fresh out of seminary and looking for a job–a professor told me First Denver would be a great place to go. “That’s a place,” he said, “where it’s okay to have a problem.” He meant it as a compliment. After all, as Richard Foster says somewhere, the church is a fellowship of sinners (albeit forgiven ones) before it is a fellowship of saints. The heart of our message is that we are not okay–but God loves us anyway.

I wonder what we might do as a church to make sure people like Jake don’t miss that. How can we communicate that really, none of us are “okay”? In particular, how can church leaders (pastors, staff, elders and deacons) model that this is a place where it is “okay to have a problem”?*

This is not the message we usually want to send. It may be okay for others to have problems–but not us! We are the religious professionals, after all. We get paid for this! We want to project an image of competency. Professionalism. Wholeness. Holiness! And like anybody else, we have our pride. So we’d prefer to keep our sins–and even our simple mistakes and screw-ups–well hidden.

But the truth is, they are always there somewhere. The truth is, we are not okay.

So: how can we help our congregations be okay with that?


*I’m trying to think beyond the so-called “homiletical strip-tease”, in which pastors air a little too much from the pulpit.

Who is Better Off?

In Barbara Kingsolver’s recent novel, The Lacuna, a character named Tommy gazes into the future and predicts a day when the people running for president will run advertising campaigns on television. Tommy’s friend stares back at him in disbelief, then lets out a little snort of laughter.  “You’ve lost your marbles,” he declares.  To him, it all seemed like a joke.  He simply cannot imagine a world where presidential candidates would stoop to advertising.

Most of us cannot imagine a world where they would not.  (But oh, how we long for November 7!  The day our dreams will be realized!)

It has become nearly impossible to escape the barrage of political advertising—especially in swing states like Colorado.  Denver is the third largest media market for political advertisements in the nation—just behind those unfortunate souls in Las Vegas and Cleveland. The ads pop up nearly everywhere we look—during the two minute break of the Broncos game, in our mailboxes, on our Facebook pages. Some savvy advertisers have even figured out way to slip campaign billboards into video games.

Recently, NPR examined some of these advertisements and observed that the two main political parties have adopted very different strategies.  While the Romney campaign has fewer ads with a more general message, the Obama campaign has tailored its campaign, producing 20 different spots to appeal to different demographic groups.   Spike TV viewers will get one ad, Lifetime viewers another, ESPN viewers still another.  The volunteers who call potential voters on behalf of the campaign have been instructed to take the same approach.  NPR reports:

At an Obama field office in Colorado Springs, college students and a few high schoolers have gathered to make calls. When high school senior Kate Henjum talks to voters, each person gets a different message.

“So when I have those conversations with a woman, it is about what Barack Obama is doing to help women,” she says. “What is it Barack Obama is doing to help youth? What is Barack Obama doing to help the Latino community?”

The two campaigns may have different advertising strategies.  But it seems to me that they operating within a similar framework.  Each campaign is working from the assumption that voters will do whatever is in their best interest.   The Romney campaign has repeatedly asked voters the question: Are you better off than four years ago?  Now the Obama campaign is doing all it can to help them answer that question with a resounding Yes! Because this is what the President did for me.

Politically, it’s a safe bet.  After all, what is more American than pursuing our own (enlightened?) self-interest?   For that matter, what is more human than looking out for old number one?   Of course the politicians expect us to go into the poll booth asking What will be best for me?

But I suspect Jesus would want something different from those of us who pledge our allegiance to Him.

Theologian Miroslav Volf argues in his book A Public Faith that the greatest hope we carry with us to the polls should not be for a “satisfied-self.”  Instead, it should be a vision universal flourishing, a profound hope that all people can experience the good life.  After all, when Christians follow Jesus into the voting booth, we are following One who was radically other-directed; One who “who emptied himself” and went “all the way to death, even death on a cross” for our sakes.  Therefore, Paul reminds us in Philippians 2, our attitude needs to be the same.  We need to look first not to our own interests.  But to the interests of others.    The first question we need to ask is not Which candidate will be best for me?” The first question we need to ask is “Which candidate will be best for others?”

Approaching politics this way will certainly not make things any less complicated.  (For starters, which other do we focus on?  The single mom on food stamps or Afghan villager or unborn child or small business owner or Guatemalan immigrant or Detroit auto worker or Wall Street banker or inner city GED student?)  And as Christians, we may have legitimate disagreements about the right answer.  But I wonder, can’t we all at least agree on the question?

How about you?  Who will your vote benefit? 


A Holy Impatience?

All I wanted when I pulled into the McDonalds drive-thru was a Chocolate Chip Frappe.   I needed a little shot of caffeine.  It was a hot day.   The frappes were on sale (just a buck!).  A quick trip through the drive-thru seemed like just the thing.  I figured I’d place my order, pay with the spare change from my ash tray (my wife would never know!), and be on my way within minutes.

I figured wrong.

Apparently, someone in front of me had ordered several hundred Big Macs.  And fifteen minutes later, I was still in line.  Still waiting to hand over my fistful of change.  Still waiting for my Chocolate Chip Frappe.

I really, really, really do not like to wait.

Like most people, I want what I want, and I want it five minutes ago.  But I know better.  I know that “patience” is an important Christian virtue–no less than a “Fruit of the Spirit.”   And I know that a little patience can go do a lot to make life more pleasant.  (Neil Plantinga once wrote: “Patience is like good motor oil. It doesn’t remove all the contaminants. It just puts them into suspension so they don’t get into your works and seize them up.”)  So I’m doing what I can to cultivate a little more patience in my life.

But I wonder: Is impatience ever a good thing? Maybe even a holy thing?

A few weeks ago, I was talking to a friend over coffee and muffins. Faith is hard for her, she says.  She just can’t figure out why God doesn’t do more to stop all the hurt in this world.   Thousands of kids die of hunger every day.  Women and children are bought and sold like trinkets at a flee market.  A gunman bursts into a movie theater and unleashes his mayhem on a crowd of terrified strangers.  Why, she wonders, doesn’t God do something about it all?

The questions nag at her soul.  To her, the unsettled feeling deep in her gut feels a lot like doubt.  But I wonder she might learn to see these questions differently.  Not as evidence of doubt.   But of impatience.  

The Bible is full of impatient people–and impatient prayers. There is the Psalmist, who cries out from the depths: How long, oh Lord?!  How Long?!  (Psalm 13).  John, who pleads from his prison cell: Come quickly, Lord!  (Revelation 22:20).  And others too.  Again and again we see people crying out for God to act–and to act in a hurry.  Not because they doubt.  But because they have a deep, abiding faith.  Faith in a God who is good.  Faith in a God who is powerful.  Faith in a God who cares about the needs of the weak, the powerless, the marginalized.  Faith in a God who has promised to come and make things new, to come and bring the power of Resurrection to a groaning creation.  They have faith.  But it is an impatient faith.  A faith that wants God to come and do all that he says he can do–all they believe he can do–and to do it five minutes ago.

For those of us who hang on to both a keen awareness of the hurts of this world with one hand and a the glorious promise of God’s new creation in the other hand, it’s hard to be anything but impatient.  I believe our impatience can be a sign–a healthy sign–of Christian hope.  But none of us really likes to wait.  As Anne Lamott once wrote: “Believing in God is easy.  It’s waiting on him that’s hard.” The danger is that it may seem too hard.  The danger is that if we wait too long, we may start to think that the thing we’re waiting for doesn’t exist, or that if it does, its never going to come our way.  The danger is that at some point, we will grow so impatient that we will give up, decide it is no longer worth the wait, that we might as well step out of line and get on with life.  It happens in the McDonalds Drive-thru (Hey, who really needs that extra 570 calories?).  But it happens with people of faith, too.

And so it may be worth reminding ourselves of the Psalmist’s words once again:

  “Wait for the Lord;

be strong and take heart

And wait for the Lord.”  (Ps. 27:14)