Fed up with sermons

shocked
Photo by permission from http://www.sxc.hu/profile/bigevil600

Yes, really.

I am fed up with sermons.

That’s probably not what a Regional Minister ought to have as the title for one of his bloggages. But I am honestly fed up with sermons.

Not, I hasten to add, in the usual sense of that phrase! (Put the stones down…)

I am fed up with sermons because when I sit and listen to a sermon I get fed. Unbelievably that even happens when I am preaching a sermon myself. God’s Spirit takes the human being who is stood at the front and uses them to nourish those who are listening. (I recognise that not everybody who is sat in the congregation is actually paying attention – and nowadays you don’t even have to be present as lots of sermons are recorded and put on church websites). Somehow a miracle happens when God’s Spirit takes words that are spoken by one person and applies and interprets them into the lives of those who are listening in different ways. The same words can have a different impact. Indeed sometimes when I have been preaching he has somehow fed someone with words and meaning that I didn’t use! I believe that’s a miracle.

But I am not just fed by sermons, I am fed up. Any sermon in church that points me towards God has, in my view, achieved its purpose. It should make us look upwards. I was reminded of that on Sunday when I was speaking from John 21 and pointed out that while the message I was giving was about fresh starts, the subject of the passage is Jesus Christ – risen, meeting with his friends, renovating Peter and offering the same fresh beginnings to all who seek them. If when I preach one of my sermons it fails to make people look up (metaphorically and spiritually) then I have failed the main objective.

A long time ago there was some correspondence in The Times about the value of sermons. Someone had written a letter to ask about the point of sermons as he had been going to church for over 30 years and could not remember one of them. The correspondence went back and forth on this subject for a while with people defending or attacking sermons. The correspondence was ended when someone wrote that they had been eating Sunday lunches for the past 30 years and while they couldn’t remember any of them they were pretty sure that they had done them some good.

I like that.

It makes me smile.

It’s a gentle but wise answer, seasoned with a touch of levity.

But…

(didn’t you know there would be a ‘but’?)

How many of you eat Sunday lunch and then don’t eat anything for the rest of the week? Could you survive like that?

So why do so many Christians think they can do that spiritually?

How are you nourished daily?

There are many online resources nowadays: you can get emails daily to your email inbox from organisations like Scripture Union’s WordLive, Bible apps on your phone  or tablet like YouVersion and there are Bible websites like Bible Gateway. There’s no reason why we can’t be fed daily. Is there?

Be blessed, be a blessing

The sermon of the surmounter*

I have just come back from a 24 hour retreat. We spent time reflecting on and listening to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). It is a sermon that is full of wisdom, insight, challenge, encouragement and even a little humour.

The way my brain works, I wondered what a modern-day version of the Sermon on the Mount might be and ended up with the Sermon of the surmounter*. This is a sermon for modern-day church life. It started off being a challenge to myself, and then I wondered about sharing it here… if you are offended by anything here please forgive me, I don’t intend to upset anyone.

DESCRIPTION: Pastor looking over pulpit at sign that reads "don't like my preaching? dial 1-800-forgive" CAPTION: HEY!

Blessed are the handraisers, for they shall obscure the words on the screen for the people behind them.

Blessed are the tutters, for they shall make other people feel uncomfortable.

Blessed are the briefest of preachers for they shall not result in numb posteriors.

If you pray in public make sure that you use the right words otherwise God won’t understand you – and more to the point those listening won’t be able to score your prayer on the ‘Sanctification Scale’ and see how holy you are. The more you repeat yourself the more likely it is that God will listen and do what you want – he has to be beaten into submission you know. Whatever you do don’t just speak normally to God – who do you think you are?

Only ever reinforce your opinions. Don’t read books or listen to speakers who interpret the Bible differently to you because your understanding will be contaminated by their unholy words. Doctrine and Dogma are never to be questioned: your understanding is correct. Doctrine and dogma shape our understanding of who God is and provide the sides of the box into which we squeeze him.

Make sure to leave your problems, your concerns, your anxieties and your doubts outside the door on your way in so that they do not distract you from the serious business of ‘having a time of worship’. Do not allow anything you sing or pray or read or see or hear to bear any relevance to your life outside of church. Make sure that you never admit to having any problems in case some well-meaning but misguided person offers to pray for you or offer to support you. Feel free to keep people at arm’s length. And don’t forget to collect your problems, concerns, anxieties and doubts on your way out – they will be just as you left them.

Remember that ‘He who complains loudest and most often is the one God listens to most’. And if you are going to send an email, make sure you do it while you are angry and hit ‘send’ before you have a chance to reflect calmly on what you have written. A second (related) approach is to let it be known among your friends that you are upset but ‘don’t want to make a fuss’. The more you can confirm that you don’t want to make a scene the better that scene will be.

When someone shares something with you about someone else ‘for prayer’ make sure you pass it on to at least three other people – ‘for prayer’. That way the whole church can end up knowing about the original person’s problems really quickly and ‘pray’ about it together. Don’t worry about asking permission to share – it’s ‘for prayer’ so that makes it okay for everyone to know. It’s not gossip if it’s ‘for prayer’, is it?

If you listen to a sermon make sure you identify people in the church who ‘really need to hear that’. Either metaphorically (or literally if you feel brave) look meaningfully in their direction. In the unlikely event that something that is said could be applied to you make sure you deflect it in someone else’s direction and pray that nobody noticed. If you still feel uncomfortable then don’t worry, you have found something else to complain about.

Work hard behind the scenes but make sure that everyone knows that you are working hard behind the scenes. That way they will admire you for your hard work and your humility.

Be awkward: after a while you will find that people stop disagreeing with you because they are afraid to upset you and don’t want an argument. And make sure that you point out difficulties and problems with every new idea. Eventually people will come to expect that of you and will see how insightful and wise you are. For maximum effect wait until the Church Meeting to do this.

If all else fails, start writing a blog.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

*To surmount means ‘overcome (a difficulty or obstacle)’ and ‘to be on top of’

some assembly required

I have been given two books. The lovely Sally, my wife, went to a charity shop yesterday and came back with a carrier bag of books (they are selling them by the bag now!) and two were for me. One was a book of card tricks, and I won’t be sharing any quotes from that with you. The other is a selection of stories told by after dinner speakers. This one tickled me:

A visiting clergyman went to a small village to take the evening service as the resident parson was ill. As he had not been there before he arrived in good time and had a look around the church. He saw a collecting box with a card over it: ‘For church expenses’ and he put in 10p.

When the service was over the verger came into the vestry with the collecting box. He said, “It has always been our custom to give the contents of this box to any visiting clergyman we may have.”

coin handHe selected a key from a bunch he held and, after opening the box, he said, “My word, sir, you are lucky tonight: there’s 10p in it!” and he handed the money over.

When he reached home the clergyman told his wife and small daughter of his experience. The girl’s answer was, “Well you see, daddy, if you had put more into the box you would have got more out of it.”

[insert your own application here*].

Be blessed, be a blessing.

*That’s where some assembly is required for this bloggage.

news

I think I may have mentioned before that I used to love the start of the new term at school. It was the newness of everything that I loved, particularly at the start of a new school year but also at the start of the term. I used to love having new pens and other stationery equipment, or perhaps even a new calculator. You might get a new exercise book or start with a fresh ring binder. And occasionally you even got a new teacher thrown in for good measure.

StationeryI think it is for this reason that I enjoy the start of a new preaching series. I don’t generally have new pens, stationary equipment or teachers (although I might treat myself to new commentaries or other books if needed) so the excitement is not really to do with tangible newness. It is the freshness and new possibilities that are contained in a new series that I find invigorating.

Planning a series is a time-consuming task but it is also pregnant with possibilities and therefore is also quite special. As different themes and series are considered and perhaps discarded or put on the backburner the messages from those themes remain with me even if they will not be used currently.

So you can imagine my excitement levels are quite high given that on Sunday we will start two new series! Those who attend our church will be relieved to know that they are not both in the same service. In the mornings we are starting a series entitled “life in all its fullness”, looking at how Jesus wants his followers to live. In the evenings we will begin a series looking at the book of Acts entitled (with a certain homage to Star Wars) “a new Hope”.

I was ordained in 1994 and must have preached 6 or 700 sermons in that time (I have been blessed by being part of team Ministry and working for the Baptist Union of Great Britain in their national office, which is why the number is less than it might have been). Yet there is always something fresh and exciting in the Bible. Even looking at the same passage in the Bible reveals different things each time. This is because it is a living book not a dead text. The same Spirit of God who inspired its writing inspired its reading and its preaching.

Hope you will find something fresh from God in these series if you’re able to join us (or if you listen to them online from our website (now more accessible from tablets and phones)). And if you don’t come to a church and don’t listen to our sermons I pray that you will still find something fresh from God if you open the pages of your Bible.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

A man and his ten-year-old son were on a fishing trip miles from home. At the boy’s insistence, they decided to attend the Sunday worship service at a small rural church. The father forgot to bring any cash, so he reached in his pocket and gave his son a ten pence coin to drop in the offering plate as it was passed.

As they walked back to their car after the service, the father complained. “The service was too long,” he lamented. “The sermon was boring, and the singing was off key.”

Finally the boy said, “Dad, I thought it was pretty good for ten pence.”

the failing of fear

Yesterday evening a Minister friend of mine posted on Facebook about how poor their sermon had been. I felt immediate empathy for them because sermons are quite personal things, and if they are not as good as we would like there is a sense that we have let God down, the church down and ourselves down*.Nick Lear

“Communication of truth through personality” is how the 19th Century preacher Phillips Brooks described sermons. They are not:

a dry speech about a subject; an opportunity to get a few things off my chest; a collection of thoughts and ideas that I have read that week; stand up comedy routines; or even the dictated words of God.

My sermons find their origin and direction from the Bible. I believe that God’s Spirit inspired writers to record experiences of his interaction with people: not dictated verbatim but inspired in an amazing way. Poets and artists being inspired by the wonder of nature or the complexities of human emotion are a pale imitation of this, but give an idea of how an outside influence can inspire us to express ourselves.

But sermons are not just about being inspired by reading something in the Bible. If I am honest there are plenty of times when I look at the Bible and it does not make sense or seem that inspirational. Sometimes finding the truth within is hard work, requiring a lot of reading, praying, thinking, pacing, solitaire (to give the brain a rest) and then more of the same.

And because the sermon creation process is a collaborative process in which God uses my intellect, personality, experiences and context to communicate to others, it is an intensely personal experience for me when I preach. It’s almost as if I have raised an orphaned animal or bird and am sending out, setting it free, releasing it into the wild as I preach. So it matters to me whether or not I feel that it was good. I know that God speaks through the worst of sermons (I had that experience with my first ever sermon where people became Christians despite the sermon). That miracle can be a humbling experience (indeed any time God speaks through me is humbling), but that does not make me feel much better if I have bombed in my own mind and not preached as well as I wanted.

Which brings me to the bloggage title – the failing of fear. When I prepare a sermon there is rarely a sense of fear that it will come together in time for the service – I prepare well in advance. There is occasionally a sense of fear that it will not make sense to those listening as much as it does to me. There is sometimes a sense of fear that I will not have communicated as well as I want.

But for me unless there is first and foremost a fear of God, then the sermon is wasted (perhaps in both senses of the word wasted). Often when I have preached a ‘stinker’ I can trace it back to having no fear of God, no sense of the significance of what I am doing – communicating God’s truth through personality.

Fear of God is that sense of awe and wonder at who he is. It is an awareness that he gives us a glimpse of his magnificence. It is the hairs standing up on the back of the neck, shiver-down-the spine realisation that you are in the presence of the Almighty.

If I come to the sermon blasé about or overly familiar with God I am at risk of complacency about what I am about to do – communicate God’s truth to people through my personality. I will be disrespecting God and his people.

If I get to the stage where I think, “It’s only preaching” I reckon I will have lost the fear of God. I will be doing it in my own strength and it will cease to be God’s truth communicated through personality.

If I think, “I can do this on my own,” I should listen to the small voice whispering, “Go on then, I’ll be waiting for you afterwards, and I’ll make the best of what you do for the sake of those whom I love.”

If your fear of God is failing, why not try to write / draw / sculpt / sew / enact / imagine (or whatever you find easiest) a complete description of God.

[shiver goes down spine].

Be blessed, be a blessing.

The wives’ group at the vicar factory where I trained had a session that my wife attended about supporting your husband in his ministry. (The group existed even though there were women training for ministry too!) The group decided that if their husband ever preached a ‘stinker’ they could console them with these words: “It was a good text, dear.”

*insert joke about the inflatable boy here. If you don’t know it, you can find a link to the Youtube video at the end of this bloggage.