Quotes on Preaching

The following is a selection of quotes collected from Ken Durham, Professor of Preaching at Lipscomb University, collected over the past semester.

Ken_Durham_Preaches

“The preacher’s number one job is to love his or her people.”

“Not all sermons call for baptism or membership — they might call you to praise aloud, or to fall on your knees, or to write your Congressman.”

“If the text doesn’t take you there, think long and hard about arriving at a different destination.”

“Preach a sermon as wide and deep and broad as the gospel itself.”

“If you’re boring people with your preaching, you’re not preaching Scripture right. It’s far too vast and deep for us ever to be bored.”

“If we are to be taken seriously in the pulpit, we must be consistent in everything from ‘I’ll meet you for lunch at 12’ to ‘I’ll pray for you.’ Make a commitment now to be a person of honor, a truth-teller, a promise-keeper.”

“We find the greatest clarity in the face of Christ.”

“Are we willing to let our hearts be broken for the sake of the people we serve?”

“Redemption can be invasive and convicting.”

“The best preaching you will ever do comes out of your own struggle with the Word of God.”

“The best communicator is he or she who turns ears into eyes.”

“Passion is expensive. It’s more than an emotion — it’s a sacrifice, a gift of great value.”

“We are not just called to tell the story. We are called to BE the story.”

Published in: on April 24, 2014 at 6:34 pm  Comments (1)  
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Our Present Salvation: A Practical Understanding of the Gospel

“Salvation is God’s Kingdom as it appears to a broken world.”

Most of the time, we tend to think of our salvation in terms of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and its implications for our eternal destiny. But how does this reality impact our lives now? I began to explore this concept in a brief paper I wrote for my Systematic Biblical Doctrine class. Click on the link below to access the PDF.

Our Present Salvation

Published in: on December 1, 2013 at 7:16 pm  Comments (1)  
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Plot Twist

I love plot twists.  I love when you find out the good character is bad, or the bad character is good, or the main character is dead after all, or the whole thing was a dream.  I love finding a movie with a good plot twist and showing it to all my unsuspecting friends, one by one, relishing the moment of revelation and the “Wait, what just happened?!”  If I were to watch them by myself, they would lose their luster after a while, but I never cease to be amused by watching other people’s jaw drop and vicariously feeling the disorientation of surprise.

Game 6 of the NBA finals had plenty of its own little plot twists as well.  For a while I thought all was lost, until Allen made that incredible 3-point shot with 5 seconds left on the clock, tying the Heat and the Spurs.  Fortunately, nobody else was home to see my manic state as I screamed and punched the air and bit the couch pillows.   When the game went into overtime, I thought I was going to die of a stroke not knowing how it was going to end.  It was pure torture, but the delicious kind, where you’re on the edge of your seat in anticipation.

That was all anybody talked about here in Miami for the next week. “Can you believe Game 6? Snatched the championship right out of the Spurs’ hands! Did you see that shot by Allen?! Man, don’t you feel bad for the people who left early because they thought it was over?”

People definitely thought the game was over that day at the Praetorium so long ago when the crowds shouted “Crucify!”…when Jesus was led away to be stripped and beaten and crucified.  That was it.  There was to be no political revolution, no reclamation of Israel.  He must not have been the promised Messiah after all.  And these disciples, who had left behind their jobs and families and followed this guy on faith for the last three years — well, what were they supposed to do now?  The cause that they had given their lives to ended up being a lost cause.  It was over.  There was shock and confusion and grief.  And Judas Iscariot was one of those people who, sadly, left too early to see the end and celebrate the unbelievable victory that God was waiting to spring on the unsuspecting:

Having disarmed the powers and authorities, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross (Col 2:15).

For Jesus, death wasn’t the end of the story.  It was only the lead-in to the most glorious plot twist in history.

His whole life, Jesus told weird stories about upside-down values in this alternate reality He called “the Kingdom.”  And not only did He tell these stories; He lived them out.  The Kingdom was where the first were last, and the last were first.  Where the people who worked all day got paid the same as the people who worked for an hour. Where the whores got more grace than the religious leaders.  Where the filthy half-breed Samaritan was the hero.

It’s where the cross turned from a symbol of shame to a symbol of victory.  Where a stolen body was a resurrected body, where the grave yielded life, where the carpenter’s son from Nazareth proved Himself to be the living, breathing, conquering SON OF GOD, who defeated death, scorned its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God Almighty.

I think any sense of apathy, any lack of wonder, on our part is simply the result of forgetfulness.  Those of us who have heard our whole lives that “Jesus died and rose again” can forget all too easily how ridiculous, how unbelievable, how incredible this whole thing was.  God forgive our complacency!!

The gospel is a roller coaster of emotion that we have unfortunately numbed ourselves to.  We know how to receive the message in an appropriately churchy way, never experiencing the waves of shock, the convulsions of grief, the hardly daring to hope, and the struggling to make sense of it all.  We can’t understand the doubting of Thomas, the glorious dawning of reality, and the immeasurable joy they must have felt.  We can talk about hearing it “as if for the first time,” but if we truly heard it that way, we would all either be on our knees in awe or dancing in exuberant celebration.

But perhaps the closest we can get is simply to share the story with others who have not yet heard it.  To smile to ourselves as they listen with bated breath, leaning in expectantly so they don’t miss a word of the riveting drama.  To share in their joy as they see the majesty of God’s plan of salvation unfold.  Perhaps the closest we can get to experiencing the story is to do just what Jesus instructed: Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, sharing the story, telling the miraculous news, baptizing them and teaching them to obey everything He has commanded us.

Because He is with us always.

Through the ups and downs of life.

Through the confusion, the hesitation, and the joy.

Through every plot twist.

Always.

To the very end.

Faith and Worry

This kid has a theological pet peeve.

Actually, I have more like a million.  But tonight I will bring one of them to your attention.  Typically, I can’t handle cute Christianese phrases.  I shudder every time I pass a church sign that says “Seven days without prayer makes one weak.”  It’s like fingernails on a chalk board.  Homonyms are tacky.  Rhymes are possibly even worse.  And there is little to no theological depth behind any of these little maxims.

As such, one of my least favorite phrases is “Too blessed to be stressed.”  Even worse is its evil cousin, “Too anointed to be disappointed.”  Three-syllable rhymes are even more unacceptable than one-syllable rhymes, and the theology here is crushingly bad.  There’s no other word for it.  Just bad.

For one thing, it’s horrendously smug.  When you paste on a self-satisfied smile and tell a struggling person, “I’m too blessed to be stressed!”, it sends the following message: I am a super-Christian. You are ungrateful and have no faith.

Disappointment in this life is a very real obstacle, regardless of how “anointed” you may be.  But when you say that you’re above stress and worry because you have superior faith in Jesus, it makes a very normal person feel very alone in their struggles.  Now in addition to the cloud of worry hanging over their head, which is probably very legitimate and justifiable, they have a sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach and the nagging thought, “I’m not a real Christian.”

When we don’t allow people to feel their feelings, we lose a vital sense of transparency — and thus, community.  Honest communication shuts down, and we get the fake little plastic smiles as we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps to make ourselves super-Christians — happy little robots who are too anointed to be disappointed.  And somewhere in the midst of all this pretending, we lose the entire point of the gospel.

You see, Jesus didn’t come so that we would never experience these negative emotions, but so that we would have hope in the midst of them.

I have heard people before use Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:25-34 as a strict command, as if a dark and angry Jesus is towering over us gravely shaking his finger in our faces and saying ominously, “Stop worrying! That’s what the pagans do.”  I have heard people reason, “Worry signifies a lack of faith…worry is a sin!”

It was a cool concept.  It made sense to me.  I eagerly jumped on the bandwagon and quickly agreed, “Yeah! Worry is a sin!”  Whenever I worried, I would slap myself around a little bit and anxiously repent, “God! I’m sorry! I’ll do better!”  And I would shove the worry into a closet and slam the door and paste on a fake smile, hoping that all that worry wouldn’t build up and come bursting out in a panic attack.  What kind of witness would that be?  What would that say about my faith?  I would be an ungrateful, un-anointed un-Christian, that’s what.

But then one day I saw Jesus’ words in a new light.  I saw a gentle, loving Jesus stooping down and tenderly cupping my face in his hand, saying in a soft voice, “Don’t worry, beloved.  I have it taken care of.”

At this point in my life, I truly do not believe that faith and worry stand in opposition to one another.  Rather, I see worry as a chance to exercise faith.  I do not believe stress to be a sin.  If you’re insistent on viewing it in a negative light, you could see it as a temptation.  But instead, I choose to see it as an opportunity: not to shove it in a closet or pretend it isn’t there, not to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and be a super-Christian, but to snuggle into the arms of the Savior and childishly, trustingly tell Him that you need help.

I’ve mentioned in another post, Dear Grace, that sin is less about doing something wrong than it is about a state of separation from God.  I’m open to correction, but this is the way I see it.  Jesus didn’t die because you parked illegally in a handicapped spot; He died to bridge the gap between God and humanity, to draw you back to Himself.  Following this logic, I would consider it more destructive to our relationship with God to pretend we’re fine when we’re not, than to allow ourselves to struggle.

The point of the gospel isn’t to ignore our brokenness; the point is to address it.  Salvation isn’t about denying our humanity; it’s about surrendering it to Jesus.  Don’t put Jesus off until you’ve got your act together; your messed-up-ness is the entire reason you need Him.

Don’t put contempt or condemnation behind words that are meant to be comforting and reassuring.  You don’t have to shoulder the burden with all the bravado of Superman.  There’s another way:

“Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

the cultural church. take 2.

Assignment for class: Write an iconoclasm treatise on something you want to change in the church.

Idea: Steal the title and first sentence of an old blog post and build on that foundation.

Product: See below.

In a culture consumed by consumerism, infiltrated with individualism, and saturated with syncretism, I have to wonder just how well the typical American church measures up to what Jesus intended for His body.  The place where contrite sinners used to come on their knees has become a trendy self-help workshop.  The place where Christians used to surrender all other loyalties is decorated with sentiments of nationalism and materialism.  The place where people used to find community has become a resource for expanding their own self-centered networks.  Gifts have become budgets and shepherds have become CEOs.  The church has become a corporation.

When a heart is replaced by an agenda and the Spirit quenched by “the way we’ve always done it,” when the counter-cultural call of our faith is replaced by a formula that mimics society a little too closely, the church has become nothing more than a lifeless structure.  The structure appears well made and carefully crafted, but it is hollow and in danger of collapsing.  At first glance, everything appears to be in place.  We have the programs, the technology, the board of directors, and a healthy bottom line.  But somewhere in all of this religious programming, one vital component is missing: God.

Throughout history, God has been an advocate for the poor, the needy, the desperate, and the ostracized.  People turn to Him at their lowest point when there is nothing else to depend on.  Yet, conversely, when we feel secure apart from God, we see no need for Him in our lives.  This is why Jesus said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” (Luke 18:24).  Could it be that in our zeal to do right, we have stored up a sort of legalistic wealth that keeps us from hungering and thirsting for righteousness?  Could it be that in our careful structures and organization, we have come to a point where going through the motions of our religion no longer requires the fuel of the Spirit?

In Revelation, Jesus instructed John to write to the church in Sardis, “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1).  Could that describe many of our modern American churches?  When the religious program is carried out week after week; when tradition, rather than the living, active revelation of God, defines our faith; when people leave unchanged time and time again; is there life in the church?  Or has our heart ceased to beat inside our perfectly-structured ribcage?

In the dawn of the church, it was an underground movement persecuted for its counter-cultural values.  But we American Christians, complacent in our first-world status, have fallen in love with our culture and modeled our faith after it.  We seek power, wealth, and affluence, advertising ourselves and exploiting others to be the best of the best.  Have we not employed this same mindset in our churches?  We advertise our selling points as better suited for the population’s needs than the church down the street.  Needing to keep up our image, we hire dynamic speakers with Ph.D.s and professional worship leaders and showy youth pastors.  Inside this web of key church leaders, we create power structures and assume everything can be solved with a formula.  The pastor is above the worship leader because he has a Ph.D.  The worship leader is above the secretary because he is more visible to the public eye.  This particularly stood out to me when we drew our home church’s structure of authority on the whiteboards in class.  There were carefully drawn little “technical” lines and “realistic” lines and squiggly political maneuvers, but there was little room for God in any of those equations.

The church has failed to distinguish itself from the world.  We have become so consumed by our own businesslike strategies that we hardly know what it means to be a community of people that follows Christ.  As such, we have lost our witness to the world.  We do not model the freedom Christ offers.  Instead, we market ourselves as insurance against hell and invite people to join our legalistic hamster wheel of Christian production and consumerism, keeping up with the latest and greatest evangelistic strategies and architectural styles.  I have to wonder, if Jesus were to come into the typical American church, would He come in with whips and overturn the tables?

Jesus never called anyone to comfortable discipleship.  He called them to radical discipleship.  It is time for us to stop settling for security and go outside our comfort zone to follow Jesus.  There are times when it will be difficult and painful.  There will be times when we are afraid.  True discipleship is not easy, but it is worth every mile you walk, every dollar you spend and tear you shed, every piece of your heart you give away.  True discipleship is the adventure of a lifetime.  Perhaps it is time we rethink the way we “do church.”  What if it were less about the building and the budget and the bottom line, and more about a group of disciples coming together to encourage and challenge one another to make a difference?  What if it were less about the structure and more about the meaning?  What if it were less about business and more about community?  What if…what if it were less about us and more about Christ?

Such a paradigm change would require some drastic and uncomfortable changes in the way we have typically thought of church.  For some of us, maybe the answer would be to abandon the corporation altogether and begin again in homes.  For others, it may be prayer and fasting as we cast a new vision for our trajectory as the church and seek guidance from the Spirit.  We need to take a good hard look at ourselves in a mirror and see if we look like the world, or if we look like Jesus.  If we resemble any structure or ideal other than Jesus – if our identity is found in something other than a simple, undecorated gospel — are we really Christians at all?

The Spoon-Fed Gospel

I spent this past week babysitting an adorable little boy who is two months shy of turning three.  I’ll admit right off that perhaps I don’t handle children in the “best” or “safest” way.  For one thing, I often use sarcasm. “Oh, you want to hide under the table and cry?  That’s so cool and super dramatic…let me know when you want to act like an adult and come out.”  For another, I’m hardly what you would consider overprotective.  I suffered plenty of bumps and bruises as a child, but I lived to tell the tale, and I learned important lessons from each one.  For instance, one of the scars on my right knee taught me that it’s not the greatest idea to ride a bike off a 3-foot drop hoping you’ll land smoothly (I never did it again).  I believe in letting children make mistakes and figure things out for themselves.

The child I’m babysitting (we’ll call him Thomas) is sadly underexposed to the world for his age.  He still sleeps in his parents’ bed, is not fully potty trained, and, as I discovered the first day, is still spoon-fed.

It was snack time, and Thomas and I took a break from playing to eat a banana and some pretzel sticks.  I peeled the banana part-way down and started to hand it to him without a second thought.  He wouldn’t take it. “No, you hold it!”  I was a little surprised by this and replied, “How about you hold your own banana, punk.”  His dad interjected, sounding almost embarrassed, “Actually, he doesn’t feed himself…you’ll need to hold the banana.”  I thought to myself, “This is not happening.”

When lunchtime rolled around, I made Thomas a sandwich and cut it into pieces for him.  As I buckled him into his high chair, I informed him, “Today it’s time to be a little man.  You’re going to do something super cool called eating your own food and being independent.  I’m going to go make my own lunch now, but I’ll be back in 5 minutes.  Have a blast with this new-found skill.”  When I returned, he had eaten a couple of pieces of the sandwich but was looking at one piece, a little confused. “This piece is too big.”  The solution was simple. “Pick it up and bite it in half. You’re welcome.”  And Thomas ate his own lunch.

Much to the glee of my Facebook friends, I posted these adventures on my timeline, receiving more “likes” than any other status in the past couple of months.  Someone commented, “It’s scary that this 3-year-old doesn’t feed himself and hilarious that you didn’t let him get away with it.”

But how scary would it be if he didn’t have my sarcasm to spur him on to greatness, and he was spoon-fed until he was 4? 6? Even 10? If, when he graduated high school and left home, he starved to death because he never learned to feed himself?  The idea sounds ridiculous, but what if I told you that it actually happens?  We paralyze our children by spoon-feeding them the gospel; and as more and more young people leave the church, we have to recognize and take responsibility for what’s happening.  We design elaborate children’s and youth ministry programs to ensure that kids have fun and that our church looks cooler than the one down the street.  But when, Sunday after Sunday, we put on a concert for the kids and call it worship, and then give them a gospel lecture that they tune out to play with their iPhones, we may be doing more harm than good.  We run our programs a certain way because we think we know best.  We think it’s our job to impart to kids all the information we have, forgetting that it took us a lifetime of mistakes to acquire it.  When you have all the answers, the hardest lesson to learn is how to shut up.

When Thomas was one year old, he began to want to feed himself.  He would whine and cry when he was spoon-fed.  But his mom hated for him to get his clothes dirty, so she ignored his tearful pleas for independence and continued to spoon-feed him because she had skills of dexterity which he still lacked.  She wouldn’t let him learn, because she could do it better.  But if we want to equip children, often we must sacrifice efficiency for the sake of teaching.  Sometimes we sigh and tap our foot impatiently while they clumsily put the puzzle pieces together wrong, because the solution is obvious to us.  But instead, we should be actively encouraging them to learn, helping them work through their mistakes, and teaching them to clean up after themselves.  Instead of doing things for them, maybe we need to do things with them.

If youth have been given doses of the spoon-fed gospel their whole lives, when they leave youth group, they’re anything but prepared. If we do everything for them rather than teaching them to do it for themselves, we’re turning out helpless babies whose faith starves to death when there’s no longer anyone to give them the answers.  They may have heard a million other people pray, but do they know how to pray?  Have they ever cried out to God in a crisis?  Do they know where to go in the Bible to find comfort?  Or have we done it for them all along without teaching them how to feed themselves?  Do they have a personal relationship with Christ, or have they borrowed their faith from their parents or pastor?  These are uncomfortable questions to ask, but we’ve got to start asking them.  And trust me, as an aspiring youth minister, these are questions that I have to wrestle with too.  Have you trained, equipped, and taught your students?  Or have you just put on a show for them?

I think the solution can be found in authentic intergenerational community and deep relationships in which we teach and challenge one another.  A community in which no voices are silenced and no questions are dismissed, in which children are free to make mistakes and encouraged to speak out, and to do, and to live the Christian life.  My vision for ministry is not a program, but rather a resource.  We need youth pastors willing and eager to work themselves out of a job.  We need to replace leaders with equippers.

The old saying goes, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day.  Teach a man to fish, and you’ll have fed him for a lifetime.”  Let’s start teaching people how to fish.  Let’s teach them how to chase after Jesus for a lifetime.

Church Work that Transforms

A brief “bulletin article” I wrote for my theology class.  I may or may not have turned it in last minute, so it’s not my best work, but I think there’s an important concept buried beneath the wordiness.

____________________________

“Don’t get so caught up in the work of the Lord, that you forget the Lord of the work.”  This is one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite books, No Compromise.  It helps me to reevaluate and refocus my efforts when I start feeling burnt out on church work.  It reminds me to keep God at the center where everything revolves around Him, rather than compartmentalizing my life and seeing “church work” as distinct from my daily life.

When we ask ourselves what church work should look like, we first must ask ourselves what church work really means.  What constitutes mission?  Is it a mission trip?  A children’s ministry?  Or does it encompass far more?  If we exclusively relegate church work to the sacred sphere and continue on about our secular work without letting the gospel transform the way we engage in daily living, we miss the blessing of God’s redeeming work in the world.

I love the way Chris Wright phrases it in his book The Mission of God’s People: “We need a holistic gospel because the world is in a holistic mess.  And by God’s incredible grace we have a gospel big enough to redeem all that sin and evil have touched.”  As God’s people – as the Church – we have the opportunity to live within His redemptive purpose.  Our whole lives are active reflections of the work that God is already doing in the world.  And the most incredible part is that He has gifted each of us with exactly the right personality traits and talents to impact the world in the special way that He calls us.  There is a place and a purpose for each one of us that we can only find when we see our lives with God at the center, impacting every arena in which we live and work and do business.

So what should church work look like?  It should look like a natural extension of our lives.  If we give every part of our lives to God for His purposes, including the “secular” realm, church work becomes an integrated part of our holistic mission rather than a compartmentalized responsibility that can burn us out easily.  So let’s take a step back, look at the big picture, and accept God’s invitation to get on board with what He is doing in the world – this is the true work of the Church.