“Thanksgiving was never meant to be shut up in a single day.”-Robert Caspar Lintner
As we head into the Thanksgiving holiday, what is one reality in your life for which you are thankful?
“Therefore, first those were seized who admitted their faith, and then, using the information they provided, a vast multitude were convicted, not so much for the crime of burning the city, but for hatred of the human race.” (Tacitus writing about Christians, ca. 116 AD)
Within the ministry world, many pastors and religious leaders in the United States are thinking today about a recent court decision in the Midwest that may have an impact upon their financial situation. For almost a century, a provision called the “housing allowance” has allowed ministers to have some income tax advantages unique to their vocation (together with the military, which are allowed a similar benefit). It is a bit of a complicated arrangement, but in the end can help religious groups and their leaders save some money each year as they ostensibly serve their communities and society.
With a lower court decision claiming such an arrangement is unconstitutional, some feel that this may be the beginning of the end for this vestige of the old days. Though I suspect it may be some time before the tax benefit is removed on a national level, I would agree that this seems to be the direction in which things are moving.
For some, developments like these are understood to be “signs of the times” in which the Church has lost its rightful influence and place in society. They see it as an attack upon traditional norms and values as well as an active sign of persecution against the faithful.
While I understand where my coreligionists are coming from, I do have some questions about the tone of the such conversations. To imply that things like this tax discussion are signs of persecution is a bit much. Considering the situation of many Christians around the globe and throughout history, our troubles are relatively light.
In the case of more stringent challenges–like a pharmacist being sued for refusing to provide abortifacients to customers in violation of their religious convictions–one does see elements of what could be termed lower-level persecution, however. Still, these things are markedly different from the torture and death faced by others persecuted for faith.
For some Christians, the answer to such problems is to somehow transform our society and return to a golden age of the Church’s influence in the world. At least this might be what you think listening to some of our rhetoric. I was reflecting on this while sitting in a lecture discussion last week at my school. While there, a colleague and I mentioned how from a certain point of view, getting our culture to “get on board” with Christianity seems a bit of a fool’s errand.
After all, the testimony of Jesus himself is that the world will hate His followers (John 15:18ff). The experience of the early Church was, after all, that of being outsiders. Until around the year 300, persecution of Christians at the hands of the Romans was the name of the game. This was the age of the martyrs and apologists. Then came Constantine and the beginning of official government tolerance, sanction, and support for Christianity. In the West this lasted for somewhere around 1600 years, and only in the past few decades has it really begun to break up. Arguments over clergy taxes are only one sign of this.
The traditionalist hand-wringing over such changes looks to sixteen centuries of Church ascendance as the norm, I think. But consider this: what if that era was the exception and not the rule? What if it was not meant to be the Christian baseline, the first 250 years of the faith was? What if the real place of Christianity is to be outsiders–as many believers around the globe have always experienced–in a culture that will never love them?
Looking at things this way and seeing the era of Christian establishment in the West as simply a “Great Parenthesis” and exception to the normal place of the Church in the world might make us stop in our tracks a bit. Sure, facing antagonism, criticism, financial setback, and even persecution for our beliefs is not pleasant. But it might just be all the Church should expect.
If you’ve been reading, watching, or listening to the news in the past few days, you almost certainly know one big fact: Chris Christie won a resounding victory in the gubernatorial race in New Jersey. You also know that he did so as a Republican in a fairly Democratic state. All of this being preparatory, according to conventional wisdom, for a White House run in three years.
If you’ve been watching the news at all for, well, I don’t know how many years, you know that Hillary Clinton wants to be President. There was a lot of talk that these dreams might be over after her primary loss to Barack Obama in 2008 …but now, less than three years before the next presidential election, there are indications she’s willing to try one more time.
For a while now I’ve believed that if Hillary Clinton ran for President in 2016, there is no one in the country that could beat her. Sure, the legacy of 2008 is that she can be beaten, but I suspect this very knowledge and her plans since then will have allowed her to adapt accordingly. While there are other Democrats out there who may run (Biden, to name one), there’s a widespread understanding that if anyone has, she’s “earned” this. She has the experience, the political skill, and a deep understanding of national and international affairs. While the Republicans–90s scandals and Benghazi on their minds–will try to derail her victory if at all possible…I’m just not sure that any of these things will stop her.
The Republicans have, perhaps, but one choice to potentially defeat (or at least heavily contest with) Clinton. That choice? Chris Christie. Sure, some dark horse candidate could come out of the woodwork and sweep the electorate in Obamalike fashion, but there are no indications of that yet. Chris Christie, meanwhile, has a strong base in New Jersey, a high profile, and the reputation of being able to talk tough yet work with those of other political persuasions. Even though he doesn’t have experience in national office, he can make the case that he gets things done. And: he isn’t caught up in the growing complications (and possible recriminations) faced by the Tea Party.
This means that, yes, Christie is not as conservative or ideologically pure as some Republicans might want. But: he may also be the only one of them that has a solid chance at winning. If the GOP considers the electorate realistically, Christie almost certainly must be their man.
A lot of factors will play into a Christie candidacy, not the least of which being whether he can survive the conservative politics of a Republican primary. If he can be himself–the same pragmatic conservative that has succeeded politically in New Jersey–or if he will, chameleon-esque, have to change in order to get the nomination. These are important questions. Not to mention the matter of whether or not he can adjust to the national stage with all his “Jersey personality” in tow.
Even so, all of this may not matter if it is Clinton he faces. She should win the Democratic primary with no problem, and–as I’ve said before–it is difficult to see anyone beating her (Chris Christie included). She’s a juggernaut. Christie would make the election more of a fight than any other GOP standard-bearer and might just manage to pull out a victory in the end, but I still say we’re looking at advantage Clinton.
In their own ways, I think that (politics aside) both have the stuff to be strong and decisive leaders of the United States. In that sense you might even say it is a shame they have to run against each other in the same election.
If Clinton and Christie draw on the best parts of what has got them to where they are and can rise above the politics of the lowest common denominator–which they both can–I think we’ll have an interesting choice in three years. At the very least, many Americans will feel like they have two strong candidate for whom to vote.
I will say this, however: I was so hopeful in early 2012 that we were going to have a mature “adult” election between Obama and Romney. A campaign based on ideas and dignity. My memories of the contest that followed have caused me to be a bit more cynical. So: we’ll see.
I went to see the new film Ender’s Game this weekend. I really enjoyed it. The action was compelling, the acting was just fine…but what really drew me in was the story. Like many, I have read the popular and award-winning book upon which is was based. It’s hard to say whether I enjoyed the movie on its own merits or because of my love for its source material, but having experienced both (as well as other novels in the series) I can tell you it is a transformative story.
Ender’s Game is the story of a future Earth faced with a mysterious but deadly enemy. In response, humanity becomes willing to do whatever it takes to win. Child geniuses are culled from the population and subjected to testing and training. The goal? To find the most outside-the-box strategic thinker in order to defeat the opposing alien race.
Enter Ender, who as a child is taken from his family by the government and subjected to test after test: zero-g games that make laser tag look like a tea party, a computer game that is as violent as it is graphic, and a battle room that would challenge even the fiercest Call of Duty aficionado.
All of these training games, Ender is told, are meant to prepare him and others to remotely control an Earth fleet sent to deal a decisive blow to their alien enemies.
Though originally written in the 1980s, Ender’s Game is oddly prescient of today’s complex world. A place where war is fought against a faceless enemy we don’t entirely understand. Where drone warfare makes the line between combat simulations and actual violence hazy at best. Where the reality and violence of video games, harmless in one sense, may nevertheless be preparatory for devaluation of life all the same.
In the film, this culture of violence is too much for Ender. He wants to stop, slow down, and understand the enemy. The war machine that is Earth has no time for this. No time at all. Like The Hunger Games, the film features a world that is locked in a cycle of violence that it forces its society–children, no less–to fight. Katniss and Ender alike are caught up in this system. Part of their story is an attempt at fighting the seemingly unstoppable force of such a culture. Indeed, perhaps it is their youth that simultaneously allows them to be taken advantage of even as it provides the platform from which to imagine another way forward.
As a 21st-century blockbuster, Ender’s Game has all the requisite special effects and explosions. Here, though, the theme of the film and its source material doesn’t really allow us revel in these big moments. Violence here is not a means to any good end; it just blinds most of its users to other potential options. So devastated is he by what is taking place at his hands, Ender rejects his masters near the end of the film. After a certain victory, his military mentor tells him, “We won, that’s all that matters!” Ender’s retort?: “No. The way we win matters.” A needed response to a world interpreted solely in terms of the zero-sum game.
Much ink (electric and otherwise) has been spilled in writing about the film, not all of it positive. For my part, though, I’ll side with those who see it (and the book series from which it takes its cue) as a piece that calls into question the easy use of violence in which our world revels. I don’t think I’d go so far as to call the story a pacifist one, but it does come close at times.
Words from the original book, paraphrased at the opening of the film, tell us all we need to know about fighting our enemies. Be warned, it reminds us. Violence is possible but never easy. And it always comes with a cost:
In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them…. I destroy them.
Steven Furtick, young pastor of a growing megachurch, has recently been in the news. The reason? Accusations of financial excess surrounding a rather large new house that he is having built for his family. In a similar vein, the Roman Catholic bishop of Limburg, Germany, Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst has been officially relieved by Pope Francis for spending 31 million euros in excessive renovations to his residence.
I cannot say much about the situation in Germany except that it seems to represent both an egregious violation of propriety and an appropriate response on the part of the Pope. When considered in light of this, Furtick’s $1.7 million dollar home seems rather modest. The issue, though, is not about comparing one excessive residence to another, but rather asking what the wisest or most appropriate course of action should be for ministers. This isn’t an attack piece–it is an examination of what is best.
To ask a broader and more provocative question, I’ll say this: how much should a pastor make?
Now, I have been a pastor and am still an ordained minister…so I can tell you this is a sensitive issue. Money is a touchy subject to begin with, but when you add in matters of faith they can become even more complex.
I posted a link to the Furtick article on my Facebook wall last week for discussion’s sake. I received some thoughts that have been helpful to me as I’ve considered related matters and they’ve helped inspire what I’m writing here.
A first way to look at the issue is to consider two somewhat different answers: 1) a pastor should be able to make (from salary, outside speaking engagements, book sales, etc.) as much as he or she legitimately earns. If that is $30,000 per year, fine. If it is $1 million, OK; 2) nearly all Americans (and most Westerners, for that matter) make more that most of the rest of the world, meaning that we all live in excess. The response to this is that we should all consider sacrificing and making do with less.
While the story of Christianity has always seemed to provide for the path of self-denial or asceticism, the life of riches and excess has often been looked at somewhat askance. While we know it is possible for the Christian to be rich, such a life can be a difficult and dangerous one. In the interest of safety and propriety, then, I stand on the side of those who feel that ministers need to be careful about how rich they get and generous with how much they give.
Am I singling out pastors as different from the rest? Maybe, and I realize this might be a little controversial. Coming out of the Reformation is the powerful idea that there ought not to be a strong distinction between the pastor and the laity. Being a Christian minister, in other words, is no better calling that being a Christian businessperson or plumber or teacher. Overly criticizing Furtick, some would say, means that I am placing him as a minister in a separate category than other rich Christians. According to a certain line of thought, this is a problem.
While I would affirm that ministers are not “better” kinds of people than others of their brothers and sisters in Christ, I do believe that because of their role, influence, and visibility they are to be held to a higher standard. I have no qualms about this. While all Christians must be yielded before God, I believe that the pastor must be more accountable. He or she is a leader of believers, a representative of God in the eyes of many, and a direct recipient of money often sacrificially given.
When I consider the role of the minister, I am constantly reminded of James 3:1: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” This is a haunting reminder for those of us who serve in this role. It means that all of our arguments about what is right and true and all of this need to be subsumed to what is wise, appropriate, and best for our flocks. I understand that it might not seem fair that a pastor needs to be more careful about what they say or do or spend, but you know what? That’s just the way it is. Our financial choices are just as pastoral as the counsel we provide or the sermons we preach.
Please note that this does not exempt everyone else from making wise and godly decisions with their life. It just means that the impact their decisions have may not be nearly as widespread within the community of faith as a poor choice by a Pope or bishop or Steven Furtick or whomever.
The questions surrounding pastors and finances are not meant to resolve around what is possible (i.e. how much can I make and still get away with it), but rather what is wise. Is it legitimate that a leader of a successful multi-thousand member group, published author, and sought-after speaker would make enough money to build a 16,000 square foot house? Absolutely. Does it makes sense for a pastor to allow themself to do so? No. Is it wise? No. Is this going to help the ministry to which God has called them? I can’t see how. I can only see it causing the kinds of problems it does. Sometimes we have to give up what we think we deserve.
I don’t know the average salary or cost of homes in North Carolina, but I can tell you that houses this size cannot be the norm. If Furtick were pastoring in some parts of the world his home’s price (but not the square footage) might be a little closer to the average, but even then there would be some serious questions. A helpful answer, in light of this, would be for pastors–if possible–be paid or only accept reimbursement (from any source) according to some metric of what an average localized professional salary might be. I think such a rule has potential, for it guarantees a liveable wage even while is does not allow the pastor to face accusations of earning “too much.”
I’ve heard one suggestion that this could be tied to what teachers or administrators at a local public school might be paid. More than this would put the pastor out of alignment with his or her community. While some churches might not even be able to afford even this number because of their size, this locally based figure might be a kind of benchmark for a maximum salary: whether it is a church of 200 or 2000 or 20,000. Having more people in your church might make you feel like you should earn more, but this does nothing to change what the average person in your church earns or sacrificially gives.
What to do as a celebrity pastor with all the other money that comes your way from speaking and writing books (the latter is, of course, where Furtick has said the money for his house derives)? Well, a good deal of it probably ought to be given away…and in no case ought it to be used in the pursuit of excess. Wisdom, prudence, and real servant leadership demands otherwise. That’s just some of what being a pastor is all about.
In just a few hours, I’ll be heading to the Northwest University chapel to preach. As I’ve mentioned before, the text on which I’ve been asked to reflect is I Timothy 6. I’ve narrowed it down from there to the central verse “The love of money is the root of all evil” (I Timothy 6:10). And yes, if you’re wondering, I do find it rather ironic to be speaking on such a theme at the very moment our government runs the risk of defaulting on its debt.
I have what I think is a challenging message, no less so for the students than it is for their preacher, who spends far too much time thinking about money. Saving, spending, paying back…it all “makes sense,” but is also is teaching me to care about money a lot more than I ought.
The problem, of course, is that we all love money too much. The answer? Well, I’ve been considering it, and I think my insight is this: teaching ourselves not to love money does not begin with how much we give away. It starts when we learn to let go. This may seem to you like a slight distinction, but I think it makes a difference. Choosing what we give away begins in the wrong place. It begins with what WE decide to do with OUR money. One of the main referents in this equation is still money, and I think such a focus can keep us in a profoundly worldly way of thinking.
Letting go, however, can operate differently. Understand me here. I’m not talking about just a generic “letting go” of OUR money. Such an approach would start, once again, with us and what we think we have. It would begin with money. The kind of letting go I’m talking about begins by reaching out to God for help in order to grasp the One whose hands have been open to us the whole time. Opening our hands means letting go of whatever it is we’ve been grasping onto beforehand, and therefore dropping whatever is holding us back. In many cases, this means relinquishing our love of money.
Charitable giving has its place, then, not as a cure to our love of money but as a response to and a reminder of the fact that we have let go. We give because we recognize and in order to remind ourselves regarding the reality that money is just a thing. Giving is a sign and response that we’ve let go. It isn’t letting go itself.
Besides, it is not like the divine “money bin” is running short. God doesn’t need our money. Rather, we need to let go of it…and not for money’s sake, but because of our deep and irrevocable need for God. Only beginning in this place of surrender, confession, and repentance of our shared love for money and what we falsely think it can do for us can put us on the road to freedom.
In my class “Discipleship and Spiritual Formation,” we’re currently reading through James Fowler’s classic book Stages of Faith. As the title indicates, Fowler attempts to describe the potential developmental progression of faith over the course of life. Though very few individuals progress through each of his six stages and many remain well short of Stage 6, the pattern is still a helpful one.
Two of the middle phases are Synthetic-Conventional (Stage 3) and Individuative-Reflective (Stage 4). As these best represent the adolescent and young adult eras, they are particularly pertinent to my work in the field of youth ministry. In Stage 3, adolescents begin to realize that they live in complex world, and their attempt to develop a coherent worldview to explain it all represent the “synthesis” portion. As they do this, however, their worldview is not entirely their own but rather one they adopt somewhat unconsciously and/or uncritically from community with which they identify. This is the “conventional” part.
As individuals in Stage 3 grow older, “leave home” either literally or symbolically, and come to realize that there may be legitimate questions about the worldview they have heretofore inhabited, they begin to process through their beliefs. In the process of reflecting and making personal decisions about what they believe, therefore, their faith becomes more individuated and overtly “their own.” This is Stage 4.
Within the Christian faith, we might say that Stage 3 represents a stage of faith development wherein people (adolescents and others that never leave this phase) mostly accept what is preached, taught, and promulgated by their churches (or the Church) without much critical examination. This is a shared way of seeing the world that everyone in the community agrees with and helps them feel safe and secure. Leaders are deferred to for questions.
Christians in this phase believe in Christ and trust in Him, even while they have perhaps not thought through the depths of that faith on a deeply personal level. As I’ve mentioned, Fowler notes that people can remain in this phase for their entire lives (i.e. not just during adolescence). Moreover, he even suggests that religious groups “work best” as institutions when a majority of its people is in this stage.
Though not denying the faith and beliefs of those in the Synthetic-Conventional phase, I believe that my job as a minister is not simply to have a bunch of people agreeing because that’s what the Church says or because it feels safe and helpfully bounded. One of my goals (and you’ll hear this phase a lot from youth ministers) is to help young people “take ownership of their faith” in the Stage 4 Individuative-Reflective sense.
Though a theologically questionable phrase, taking ownership of one’s faith implies the helpful idea that living a life for Christ means that it is something that you have to decide and live for within yourself. Something that you have to work through and except on a very personal and thoughtful level. There ought to be depth to our faith, in other words. A depth that, in many ways, must be unique to us as we have worked through the stories of our lives and the questions they bring.
Helping adolescents (and adults locked in Stage 3) progress to Invididuative-Reflective faith means making our lives more difficult as ministers. It will mean shepherding our flock through some tough and dangerously honest questions from time to time. It will mean helping them process their doubt. It is a risky undertaking and one that should proceed with great care. And yet, the opportunity for our fellow believers to grow deeper in their walk with God and surer of both their personal reasons for belief and the shape of their faith is one I would not want to miss. As I work mostly with college students now, many of whom would feel that Stage 4 is their current home, I feel more and more confident of this. Stage 5? Well, that’s a question for another day.
One of the interesting things about Pentecostalism is that it is so new. The movement has grown from basically zero about 125 years ago to one of the largest Christian groups in the world today. A recent study by the Pew Forum, for instance, has determined that there are an estimated 584 million Pentecostals and Charismatics (we might lump them together under the term “renewal movements”) across the globe.
In addition to representing around 8% of the entire population of the world, Renewalists now constitute over 26% of Christianity. This means that 1 in 4 Christians living right now could be considered Pentecostal or Charismatic.
While the numbers are often debated and figuring out exactly who belongs in which categories can be controversial, it is clear that Renewalism has grown to be a large and influential movement that is coming to define the Christian faith of the 21st century.
We’ve reached that point in my Church History course this semester where we are talking about Roman emperor Constantine. His conversion to Christianity in the 4th century augured great changes for Christianity, which within one generation went from being actively persecuted by the Empire to being not only tolerated but actively favored by those in power.
This move from humility to power was a major turning point in the development of the Church. Some have seen it through a triumphal lens. Others have seen it as the death knell for “real” Christianity. In any case, it was the end of an era. Now moving into an influential position, the Church had new demands placed upon it from both within and without.
I wonder, as I consider Pentecostalism and related movements, if similar dynamics are not at work today. Though the geopolitical and global religious climate is much different from Late Antiquity, in just a few generations the world has seen a small movement despised and rejected by the religious elites become one of the most numerically dominant forms of religion in the world. As there has been a growing awareness of this in the larger world, forces similar to those that attempted to direct/guide/influence the newly powerful early Church may similarly be at work.
Already in much of the literature and scholarly debate around Renewalism we see a lot of ink being spilled on defining the “meaning,” “ethos,” and “legacy” of Pentecostalism and its co-religionists. Is it a protest movement? A movement of the people? Is it conservative or progressive? How much of it is otherworldly and how much is concerned with today’s pressing social issues? The list continues. Descriptions and prescriptions for the movement abound, and I suspect will continue to do so as Renewalism navigates its newfound influence. Whether this will be ultimately helpful or not is an open question…though I will say that influence, power, and money have not always been handled well by religious faiths the world over.
This past week Joseph Castleberry, the President of Northwest University (the school at which I teach) released a new book entitled The Kingdom Net: Learning to Network Like Jesus. Before coming to our school, Dr. Castleberry earned degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary (MDiv) and Columbia University (EdD) and served in a variety of roles including missionary, seminary dean, and campus pastor. His most recent monograph draws on his diverse background and experiences as he helpfully reflects on “Christian networking” for a wide audience.
I must admit I was initially skeptical about the idea of networking being discussed in the same breath as theology and the work of the Church. I was concerned, like many, with the perceived threat of some kind of unholy porting of business and technocratic rhetoric into the Kingdom of God. In this book, though, Joseph Castleberry wins me over with his reflections on the way in which the Kingdom of God is a network.
Drawing on the metaphor in Matthew 13 in which Jesus says that “the Kingdom of God is like a net,” readers are reminded that the idea of a network of interconnected strands is not just about the cold technological links of the computer world but is something that predates current connotations of the word. By reforming our approach to the notion of a net-work Castleberry places it in deep dialogue with biblical metaphor. The world of fishing has special resonance with the call of Jesus to his earliest disciples and, through the parable of Matthew 13, the Kingdom of God.
By reclaiming the word network from its contemporary usage, The Kingdom Net returns us to a time when the “net-work” was more pregnant with meaning. As Castleberry describes it, the strands of a net united for a larger purpose are indicative of God’s Kingdom, making networking a truly Christian enterprise. It is a net, in other words, that both catches us and uses we who are caught to form a net for others. This connection one to another means that Christianity is not a faith of isolated strands, but one that by its very nature must reject compartmentalizaton, siloization, or excessive division over relatively minor points of doctrine.
Moreover, by imaging the Church as a net, Castleberry reminds us that we do not simply net-work together as Christians for our own sake or sense of togetherness, but because we are to be united in what God calls us to in the world. As he writes, our is not simply “a mission to redeem humanity, but also to redeem the mission of humanity.” It is a task that is ours together as united strands in the Lord’s net.
This picture of the Kingdom of God reminds us that ours is an ecumenical (whole Church) call to network together for the sake of the world, and to extend that network to the world for their sake. Networking, we learn, is missional.
As much as The Kingdom Net is a theological reflection on the Kingdom of God, it is also advice learned by Dr. Castleberry from his experiences as President here at Northwest. College presidents, after all, sink or swim based upon their ability to network. By thinking through this task carefully, Castleberry has done us a service. Though many today would see networking as only a necessary evil, The Kingdom Net suggests that it is actually a task close to the heart of God. Accordingly he not only offers biblical and theological analysis of the topic, but some deeply practical suggestions and exercises for how we might network with others. Everything from writing the thank-you note to connecting with community groups like Rotary has its place.
The presence of networking suggestions such as these, as specific as they are direct, serve to help readers understand that which Castleberry deeply holds: talk of the “net-work” need not be empty theory or metaphor, but an actual way of arranging one’s life. This, I think, is the book’s great achievement and that which will help it to be beneficial to a wider audience. Further, by buttressing these suggestions with some real (yet accessible) theological weight, Castleberry shows that this is not a “how to win at life” book, but something that readers should consider deeply in the midst of their call as Christians to live out the mission of God together. Networking, therefore, is not undertaken for purely instrumental ends (i.e. what you can “get”) even while it does have a goal beyond simple “presence” one with another. We network for a purpose. For the Kingdom. Because it is God who calls us to the net and uses us as the net. We are called, if you’ll remember, to be fishers.
The Kingdom Net is a thoughtful and accessible book that will serve to benefit Christian professionals and others as they consider their vocation in light of God’s mission. Networking need no longer be thought of (somewhat artificially) as an unholy secular task, but rather a deeply sacred enterprise to which we are called. This reclamation and renovation of the term and idea makes Castleberry’s a worthy piece of practical theology that will reap positive results for those readers seeking to engage his ideas.
In preparation for speaking at one of our Northwest University chapel services in a few weeks, I’ve been reflecting a bit upon my message. Among other things it has reminded me of one of my personal rules for sermon construction. In light of this, a short reflection:
A sermon needs to be about one thing.
I’m not the only one that has said this, and there will be many who say it after me. But its lack of creative splash doesn’t make it any less true.
When I say a sermon must be about one thing, I mean that it should be able to be summarized, very quickly and coherently, in one complete sentence. With one question. That it can be represented with a unitary image, principle, or call to action. Whatever it is that encapsulates the sermon, it needs to be singular.
This rule isn’t a biblical mandate and is not descended from Mt. Sinai, but I still think that it is an important one. By crafting a focused message, hearers will be able to recall and (hopefully) apply the words shared without having to sort through a complex and multi directional discussion with either too many or no unifying theme(s).
To say that a sermon is about one thing is not, of course, to say that there cannot be multiple points. It is simply to say that at the end of the message, all of your points, illustrations, asides, gestures, Scriptures, etc. are in service to the larger goal.
In topical sermons (common in youth ministry, for instance) keeping focus on that one theme should hopefully be clear. In exegetical preaching (i.e. directly from the message of the text), staying focused can be more difficult, because the passage under consideration might be about a few different things. In that case, I’d simply suggest choosing just one of those themes and sticking with that for the message. Remember that this is not supposed to be a lecture showcasing your scholarly and exhaustive erudition or all of our deep spiritual insights, but an exhortation to the people.
Keeping the sermon about one things means that we need to be careful not to let our interest in various ideas, narrative rabbit trails, humorous anecdotes, or powerful multimedia overtake the one point of the sermon. Sometimes I have really good ideas that I think of when preparing a sermon. Some of these are only tangentially connected to my main point and don’t do much to support it. If I am staying true to my idea of a sermon, a lot if not all of these ideas will have to be jettisoned. Anything preached that doesn’t support the main theme and certainly anything that distracts from it needs to go.
Some worthwhile thoughts as I continue to prepare my sermon. Because, in the end, if this “preaching thing” is the Word of God to God’s people, we ought to take care in how we go about it.