Tuesday, November 24, 2015

paris, terrorists, christians...and politics

Last year my wife and I traveled to Paris. We walked a million miles around the City of Lights, met wonderfully friendly people who helped us with our pathetic expression of their beautiful language, traveled to the top of the Eiffel tower at midnight, spent an entire day running through every wing of the Louvre, hiked to the top of Montmartre Sacré-Cœur and watched the sun hide behind history, laughed at the tacky, touristy block with Moulin Rouge, marveled at cemetery graves above ground, shuffled through tiny, hidden shops on side streets, awed by the backside of the giant clock like the Hugo movie poster in the Musée d’Orsay, navigated the bustling crowds while staring at our Tripadvisor app, and wished we had another month to explore. I would have never guessed that we could have been the target of the multiple terrorist hits that happened in France this past year, culminating in the loss of one-hundred-and-thirty lives two weeks ago—the worst single attack in Paris since World War II.

Paris captured our headlines (although Nigeria’s weekly terrorist losses outstrip everyone and get little western attention). Even stranger is the reality that Muslims themselves suffer the majority of fatalities from terrorist attacks worldwide, mostly due to terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But what we really grapple with is simply this: what is going on in the head and heart of someone who cries, “God is great!” while unloading AK47’s magazine after magazine into the bodies of strangers and then detonating bombs strapped to their own torsos to incur the maximum damage a single human being can do? No wonder atheists decry religion and pump their fists in the air: witness for yourself the danger and instability of the religionists of the world. Who wants—or needs—a god of violence in an already fragile world? How can someone coldly execute another while calling of the name of God, the father of compassion?

In the first century, James wrote a generic letter to people who were scattered throughout the Mideast and Asia because of religious persecution:

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? James 3:9-11 (New International Version)

I certainly don’t have a good answer. I understand resentment and pain, but I’ve never been hurt at a level that caused me to inflict physical pain or torture on another. But let’s be honest: I live in a comfortable first-world culture. ISIS and its grand scheme for an end-of-the-world, apocalyptic unfolding of a caliphate as they believe prophesied, is a complicated mess to undo; no matter what bombs are dropped on their strongholds, it’s much harder to destroy an ideology.

As a Christian, though, I am accountable to God for my own stuff as well as the people that I am in community with. And here’s where it gets weird.

We are quick to take umbrage with the idea—and rightfully so—that it’s morally okay to shout, “God is great!” with our mouths and then blow someone away with a Kalashnikov. And we would disparage the religion of anyone who implies that it is okay to do that. Of course that’s heinous. But what’s puzzling to me is how Christians can forward emails and post on Facebook the most hateful, disparaging things about a government leader, about a celebrity, about a Muslim, about someone we disagree with politically or culturally, and then an hour later post a picture of a scripture about God’s goodness. We seem to forget that Jesus equated the thoughts and intents of our hearts to actual physical activity:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Matthew 5:27-28 (New International Version)

“You’re familiar with the command to the ancients, ‘Do not murder.’ I’m telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder.”  Matthew 5:21-22 (The Message)

A few days ago I was tagged by a fellow Christ-follower who posted a picture of President Obama at the podium with a soldier standing next to him holding a Photoshopped gun to the president’s head. The comments basically read: please, put us out of our misery.

Really? Is that our best expression of our Christianity—of our relationship to the God of the universe who loved us when we were going under for the third time in our sins? Is that really what we, the Church, want to shout from the rooftops? Under a corrupt, persecutorial government, the apostle Peter tellingly wrote: Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king. (1 Peter 2:17 New International Version). Think about that as you forward your next un-Snope-reviewed email of “ressentiment” on your laptop from your comfy recliner while sucking down Diet Cokes and Doritos.

And yet we continue to think and verbalize hateful and vengeful things because we believe we are righteous, truthful and defending God’s honor. Under the probing code of Jesus, do we really think that’s any different than the terrorist chanting “Allahu Akbar” while blowing away a stranger? Frankly, it doesn’t seem to be any different according to how Jesus reads us.

In this long, dry political season ahead, please, Christian, think twice what you publish.

Jesus is watching you. And reading your posts.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

the challenge of writing weekly sermons (part 2)

In the last post (please read that first!), I talked about the connection between our yearly strategic initiatives and our teaching calendar along with the filters through which we developed our series. But when it came time for me to actually assemble a message for the weekend (after meeting with a team of folks some 3-4 weeks earlier and gathering ideas (references, texts, creative ideas), I now have the tough work to do: write the message.

I’ve discovered there are as many different preparation styles as there are pastors. I think it was after Rob Bell gave his famous scapegoat message—with a live goat by his side—at a preaching seminar years ago that John Ortberg followed with a funny, pithy comment along the lines of: “Pastors, don’t try that unless you’re Rob Bell.” Pastors/teachers are wonderfully unique both in speaking and preparation.

My personal style was simply to get in my car on Friday morning, go for a long drive away from the office, listen to a podcast that typically had nothing to do with my topic, grab a lunch while reading, then begin to write furiously after looking at the notes from the teaching team meeting, oftentimes in a park. Drive home about 5:30pm or so.

The next morning I would go to my office, lock the door and write for the next seven hours, often creating my own Powerpoint/ProPresenter visuals myself (as an artist, graphics help me think), reading my talk out loud as I go, send the word-for-word transcript (with slides highlighted) and graphics to the tech team, walk down to the auditorium and speak at the Saturday celebration at 5:30. After meeting with new people after the service at our “Ten-Minute Meetup” (and sometimes having dinner with someone new), I’d drive home and typically edit my message for another hour or two. It may not have drastically needed it, but it made me feel better and more confident. Then Sunday morning I’d speak at the three celebrations: 9, 10:30am and noon. For a number of years, I’d also connect with someone that I trusted with a very different personality than me who would critique my message.

When I once mentioned my process with my friend Rich Nathan (pastor of the Columbus Vineyard), he looked at me and said, “Wow. We could not be more different…”! Everyone does it differently, but it always helped me to hear how folks constructed their messages.

So here are the details…and a few tips:
  • 12-14 hours uninterrupted think/writing time; 7 pages of 12pt / 1.5 line spacing allows for a 30-35 minute message.
  • 8-10 of those hours were writing on my Macbook, researching the internet, perusing my Kindle library, using my Wordsearch bibles/commentaries, wordsmithing, etc.
  • Another 1-2 hours editing Saturday night
  • I transcript the entire talk word-for-word and have learned to write like I talk.
  • I read it aloud as I write it, and usually once before I give it.
  • I format the talk to a Word template that I created for my iPad, save it as a pdf in Dropbox, download it to my iPad and open it up in iBooks where it lives in perpetuity.
  • I often try to work on the finish first; this is what people tend to remember…and especially when it leads into a time of prayer or ministry. Many of us spend too much time on the opening setup and miss the critical close.
  • Be aware of the need for a “commercial break” every 5-7 minutes (personal story, humor element, a chance to exhale, etc…).
  • Typically, new preachers use too many scripture texts. It’s overload for the listener and dangerously close to cherry-picking.
  • If you’re a good storyteller, exploit it. But make sure there’s a very clear connecting point. Jesus was the master.
  • Find a critic…but not your spouse…unless you’re really, really secure. (Wounds from a friend can be trusted… Proverbs 27:6)
  • Be authentically transparent; people will apply the message if they trust the messenger.
  • Study other good speakers. Watch for context and continuity.

I started transcripting word-for-word in the nineties when we were doing seven services each weekend and I would space out and couldn’t remember if I made a particular point. Plus, I’m pathetic at memorization, so I felt more comfortable with every word transcripted. Additionally, I work very hard on specific phrases I want to use; wordsmithing is critically important to me—words are powerful and I never want to take them for granted.

Other teachers on my team had radically different approaches. Some only used an outline, others sketched it out with simple doodles on one page, some mind-mapped it, others had near photographic memories after reading it once, and on and on.

The great evangelist Jonathan Edwards dispassionately read his sermons word-for-word, close to his face since he was so nearsighted. When you read his most famous message, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, it’s worth remembering that he would read with conviction but like an academic. Or as one observer noted, “He scarcely gestured or even moved, and he made no attempt by the elegance of his style or the beauty of his pictures to gratify the taste and fascinate the imagination.”

George Whitefield was quite the opposite. This remarkable preacher presented his sermons extemporaneously with no notes. It’s estimated he preached easily 18,000 times to millions of people (but I’m sure there were a lot of repeats…). Benjamin Franklin once described the sheer power of Whitefield’s voice: “He had a loud and clear Voice, and articulated his Words and Sentences so perfectly that he might be heard and understood at a great Distance . . . I computed that he might well be heard by more than Thirty Thousand.”

Sheesh. And pre-subwoofers.

In our day, Andy Stanley is a no-notes guy. Bill Hybels carefully scripts each word and reads it. Different strokes.

There are obvious pros and cons to transcripting:
  • Pro: you have a good record of your talks
  • Pro: you can create pivotal phrases
  • Pro: you see how much redundancy, repetition and cliché you use. Unless you watch videos of yourself speaking (which every communicator should regularly do), you have no idea how you come off. Remember the first time you heard your voice and were shocked at what you sounded like? Yeah. You should see you.
  • Con: you can sound scripted
  • Con: you can lose spontaneity
  • Con: you can miss critical eye-contact with audience
Last, a few important overall things to remember:
  • Know your Bible. People are depending on your wide understanding of scripture. Because of the different genres within those sixty-sixty books, it’s easy to get tangential on a single verse. James 3:1 ought to make us circumspect.
  • Know what you don’t know. Don’t try to impress. I’ve been bitten trying to interpret a Greek or Hebrew word based solely on a single commentary or Strong’s. Let’s not try to pretend to be language scholars if we’re not. You might think it sounds impressive, but it’s not.
  • Let’s not try to be theologians if we’re not one. Of course we have to have a solid theology (2 Timothy 2:15) and know what we believe, but we are shepherds first…and shepherds are sheep-centered and always looking for the one that’s wandered off. Yes, I know by default every believer is a theologian, but you’re a pastor first, a theologian second. At its heart, the gospel is deep, but not complicated.
  • Know your message. Read several translations and paraphrases to get a larger meaning of the text.
  • Know thyself. You can really only take people as far as you’ve been experientially. Don’t fake it. Integrity, integrity, integrity. I’ve noticed this about myself: When I’m spiritually and emotionally healthy, my tone is full of grace and truth; when I’m unhealthy, I tend to get preachy and harsh.
There you go. That’s my approach for better-or-for-worse (I feel naked now), but regardless of yours, it’s our responsibility to sharpen our calling and get better at what we do. Find your rhythm and master it.

And at the risk of sounding over-dramatic, lives are depending on it.

Friday, August 14, 2015

the challenge of writing weekly sermons (part 1)

Over the last thirty years, I’ve spoken in some capacity—whether teaching or worship leading—in well over four-thousand church services because of multiple services on the weekends. Seriously. It actually sounds a bit unbelievable (uh, crazy?) when I think about it.

Prior to that, for ten years I traveled coast to coast in bands of various configurations as a vocalist, guitarist and drummer, communicating in widely (and wildly) different settings, from small coffeehouses to festivals, in front of a handful to thousands. That’s not to mention workshops, seminars and conferences, both nationally and internationally.

To say that I’ve spent the bulk of my life trying to learn to communicate in different mediums the ridiculously good news of Jesus and the Kingdom is an understatement. Please note: “trying to learn.” You’d think I’d have this down, but I get nervous every time I speak and I’m still addicted to notes. And still learning, even now in my sixties. I feel like a neophyte at this communication-thing…despite Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” theory of mastery.

But there are a few things I think make communicators better, especially those entrusted with preaching/teaching. Before I share a few techniques, paramount is a preparatory attitude: I’ve never taken lightly the honor of communicating before an audience the realities of the Kingdom and hopefully the heart of God. For what it’s worth, I have little respect for speakers who simply wing it without prior prayer, perspiration and thoughtfulness. And believe me, most people can spot them.

For pastors, I think it’s best to have an overview of an entire year of speaking. Most of the time at the Vineyard, we spoke topically, though at times we would tackle a book of the Bible. Regardless, looking out over twelve months is incredibly helpful. The way we (our leadership team) would determine the teaching calendar was preceded by uncovering what we called our yearly “strategic initiatives”—what we would want our entire staff and key volunteer leaders to be focused on for the next year, typically three-to-five initiatives.

Once those were determined, the team would sketch out a rough teaching calendar for the next year—series and themes would be mapped on a calendar. We would keep five things in focus in this process:
  • Our mission and vision (it would be posted on a wall)
  • Our core values (posted as well)
  • Our proposed new strategic initiatives
  • A gap analysis (where is there a problem of praxis at Vineyard Cincinnati? What are the felt needs? What needs to be corrected by teaching?)
  • And, of course, what God wants to specifically say to our church (hopefully determined by a guided prayer time with the team)

We would also balance and adjust our teaching calendar through this filter: “Army” talks (series that are mission-centered, “take-the-hill” focused), “School” talks (series that are doctrinal, creedal, or pure Biblical-literacy talks) and “Hospital” talks (growth-and-healing, soul care, self-awareness talks). Why? Because too much of one style can either (respectively) wear a church out, puff it up, or become too inward-focused. And most pastors will subconsciously default to one of these in their teaching style.

One ridiculously simple reason for planning twelve months in advance is simply this: other key ministries can plan events and seminars that match the topic. For instance, if we were doing a “Hospital” series—perhaps messages on developing authentic relationships—our Growth & Healing Ministry might plan small groups or classes at that time on that topic to tackle our relational dysfunctions. Anytime you can “preach” the announcements, your “extracurricular” events have more power, better response and provide a clear actionable point.

For years I had a team of people who would brainstorm creative ideas, references and texts for messages. It was always helpful to call up those notes when I was prepping for a message. But before crafting a message, I’d remind myself of a few questions:

1. What’s the form? If it’s topic-driven, I begin by thinking of as many scriptures as possible that relate to the subject…via memory, word searches and conversations with others. If its text-driven, I want the passage to preach itself, to really breathe. What did the author intend, what was the context, who was it written for, what’s our application? I’m primarily looking for a few things: what does it want me to do, or how does it expand my understanding and heart for God?

2. What is the one main action-oriented “take-away” I want the listener to get? I’m convinced that listeners can’t really assimilate multiple points into any actionable follow-up. So what is the One Thing I want them to leave with?—or in other words: what is God saying to you in this message and what are you going to do about it? We have to move beyond mere information, because most of us really only learn by ultimately doing it.

3. Who is my audience? I have to consider the wide spectrum of people listening to me, such as:
  • Demographics. How will the single mom, factory worker, executive, or college student hear this message? Those are actually the four people I imagine myself speaking to.
  • Political spectrum. Don’t ever assume a monolithic political view in your audience. Or as Andy Stanley says, “I’d rather make a difference than a point.”
  • Age. Consider the average age of your audience; what references will they understand and what’s their generational bias in terms of style.
  • Cultures. I once watched Tony Evans masterfully speak to a group of white people with their notepads and pens poised. He spoke in a style radically different than his own church, accurately reading the audience and how they would best hear him.
And even if your church isn’t very diverse, you’re probably podcasting or posting audio of your messages on your website. Please, please, please consider your potentially wider audience...and don’t embarrass the Body of Christ with an offhanded insensitive remark.

4. Last, during the writing of the message, I have to consciously slow down my brain and ask out loud, “Father, what do you really want to say this weekend?” It sounds simple, but that would calm my furious typing and spare me from many a rabbit trail.

In the next post, I’ll get into the actual mechanics of how I craft a message. But for now, slip off your shoes, look down and remember this:

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, "Your God reigns!" Isaiah 52:7 (New International Version)

You’ve either got a great podiatrist or a calling from God, my friend.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

why does it take a tragedy?

The powers-that-be in South Carolina absolutely puzzle me. I’ve tried to listen carefully to the people who revere the stars-and-bars flag as honoring their past, but for the life of me I can’t understand the inability to see the confederate flag as anything other than a symbol for white supremacy. The cancer of slavery has left scar tissue that still causes pain, structural inequalities and a festering racial divide—it was only a mere fifty years ago that Jim Crow laws were repealed by federal mandate.

Legitimate historians have never been able to support the revisionist stance that the civil war was primarily about states’ rights rather than slavery; Ta-Nehisi Coates’ brilliant article in the Atlantic Monthly clearly outlines that history. And if it was all about states rights, why did only slaveholding states secede? What’s more, slave-holding states pushed for federal involvement with the Fugitive Slave Act when northern states passed state laws granting sanctuary for fugitive slaves and their refusal to return them to their “owners”. So much for states rights.

Former governor and 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney tweeted “take down the #ConfederateFlag” last week, creating a media firestorm: Huckabee, Cruz, Rubio, Fiorina, Carson, Santorum all said it was an issue for South Carolina to resolve, apparently sidestepping the real issue for fear of upsetting potential support. And it’s not just politicians who have punted this issue. Only today did Walmart agree to stop selling merch with the confederate flag on it (come on, Amazon…).

The justification of slavery was an economically-driven choice that oddly enough only condemned dark-skinned people as property. The leaders of the confederacy clearly viewed blacks as an inferior race; South Carolina Senator James Hammond declared before the U.S. Senate in 1858 that “We do not think that whites should be slaves either by law or necessity. Our slaves are black, of another and inferior race.” The rallying symbol of the rebellion against the federal government was the Confederate flag; even at the very least it should be considered a symbol of treason.

Can you imagine Germany allowing one of its state governments to fly a swastika? Regardless of the German soldiers who had no knowledge of Auschwitz or were forced by conscription to serve and fought selflessly for their country, it still offers no grounds to fly the symbol of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. The politicians there have worked hard to neither expunge that painful part of their history or deny it. But they certainly don’t want to honor it in any way.

The gazillion times I’ve driven I-71 north toward Columbus, it never fails to sadden me when I pass the old barn on the east side with the huge confederate flag painted on the roof. I always wonder why: why would someone want to take the time to reproduce an image of suffering and that causes so much pain to such a huge segment of humanity? What causes such a glaring lack of empathy?

As I Christian, I would say sin.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

grandfathers gone wild...

So my daughter Katie and her husband James welcomed their new baby into the universe last week: Lucas Everett Sizemore. Now with two kids under a year-and-a-half, their world is quickly changing.

But my world is as well...because the pressure is on to create another book. No, not the kind of book you shop to publishers. That’s hard enough—I’m still trying to finish up “Elemental Leaders” by the end of summer—but I’m talking about the in-house kind, the Shutterfly-type stuff that you do for your family.

Last year I went Photoshop-insane and created full-page graphics for Katie and James’ daughter Emmie. Yeah, I obsessed. For Christmas I gave them a copy and, of course, made one for our coffee table. Come on over and I’ll show it to you.

Anyway, here is some shameless grandfather craziness. From the front cover...to the two-page spreads...to the back cover. Click on the pictures to expand them.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

david letterman goes to church

Last night I watched the final episode of David Letterman’s thirty-three year run on the Late Show. Comedians have been paying homage for the last several weeks, sometimes tearfully. Jimmy Kimmel’s article in Time magazine about the impact Letterman had on comedy and the talk show format is worth a year’s subscription. As Kimmel summed up, “None of us who discovered Dave on our own and claimed him as our own will ever be able to satisfactorily explain to younger people what he did, what he meant and what he means.” Talk shows had become the Vegas-slick status-quo; Letterman was the garage band turned up to eleven.

It’s hard to put into context in this current millennium how revolutionary and seditious Letterman’s comedy was. His slyly snarky delivery was underscored by a midwestern self-deprecating persona that subversively upended the corporate protocol. He let everyone in on his obvious dysfunctions while remaining intensely private. Monday through Friday his feigned gap-toothed smile let his audience in on the most cerebral jokes. And who else would throw stuff off buildings to see what would happen, drive a steamroller over anything, dip himself in an Alka-Seltzer suit, make a Velcro leap, cut through Hollywood phoniness while calling his studio a dump? It was as if the inmates had taken over.

Baby boomers knew they had a rebel coup on the airwaves at 12:30am each night after Johnny Carson’s menthol-smooth delivery but tired format. Then he moved to the coveted 11:30 time slot on CBS opposite Jay Leno’s Tonight Show…who was given the show over Carson’s wishes. After his retirement, Carson would secretly send jokes to Letterman.

And during that same era, Vineyard Community Church in Cincinnati was birthed. We knew that humor was critical for tearing down the walls between churched and unchurched people. We knew that if people who were far from God would trust us to deliver the dangerous message of Jesus, it would take some cultural touch-points…poking fun at ourselves and laughing together. As C. S. Lewis penned in The Four Loves, “Friendship is born at that moment when one man says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself.’”  When people laugh together, a unique bond is created. We knew that the Church, as it was, seemed hopelessly locked in a culture war that created a barrier before a conversation could even begin.

But there was more to it. Vineyards had a mantra: Everyone gets to play. That meant that ministry was not relegated to professional ministers…and that God wanted everyone to extend the Kingdom with the unique gifts He had given. The line between clergy and laity had to be blurred if we were to be effective with a “priesthood of all believers” approach. We took advantage of that by poking fun at our pastors and letting people see that pastors were just regular people with their own dysfunctions. We felt it was necessary to pull pastors down from pedestals. It was a tricky wire to walk; and as I told our “crack staff” of volunteers who shaped our celebrations, “Theology is easy. Comedy is hard.” But we knew it was important.

And so we cribbed from Letterman mercilessly. We winked our eye and brought everyone in on the joke that church people can be pretty ridiculous. We referenced “The World’s Most Dangerous Worship Band.” We created our own Top Ten lists with titles like:

Top 10 Ways You Know You’re In A Bad Church (#8 “The church bus has gun racks”. . .  #6 “Services are B.Y.O.S.—”Bring Your Own Snake” . . . #3 “Doctrine includes story of Xenu, a galactic ruler who brought billions of people to earth 75 million years ago, stacked them around volcanoes and blew them up with hydrogen bombs…oh wait, that’s Scientology.”)

Top 10 New Year’s Eve Predictions for 1997 that included: “Rapture happens. Vineyard cuts back to three services.”

Or on Mother’s Day, the Top Ten Worst Mother’s Day Gifts included “Clairol Unibrow Waxer”.

And sometimes we got shut down and had a Top 10 pulled after a Saturday night celebration, as in Top 10 Things The Disciples Said After The Resurrection (#7 “Hey Pete, cock-a-doodle-do!”. . . #1 “Jesus Christ!”). There was uncomfortable laughter after that last one. I thought it was theologically perfect...pretty much what Thomas said. Oh well.

We followed our list of Favorite Christian Guys’ Pick-Up Lines (“Before tonight, I never believed in predestination...”) with Favorite Lines Christian Women Use To Break Up With Jerks Who Talk Like That (“God loves me and must have a better plan for my life.”)

Or the time we had two guys dressed up as Wayne & Garth on the heels of their popularity on SNL with the Top 10 Christian Babes…with Amy Grant on it twice. Poking fun at the American religious subculture seemed healthy to us.

We launched into videos in the early ‘90’s when all we had were VHS tapes in an “editing suite” of two VCRs. Letterman took his audience out on the streets with him; so would we. We regularly had a running video sketch where Steve Sjogren—our senior pastor—didn’t come up to speak after the announcements. While there was a minute of uncomfortable silence, I would run frantically out the side door to find him while a pre-recorded video picked up the outside action. In the very first one we taped, I ran all the way to a Burger King up the street to find him cleaning the toilets. That was a two-fer: we lifted up the value of servant evangelism while making ourselves look a bit remedial. As a matter of fact, when we filmed it earlier we failed to get permission and simply went in the bathroom with a camera to do some guerrilla filming. Suddenly the manager flung open the restroom door and found three of us jammed in a stall: Steve with yellow rubber gloves, myself and a guy with a video camera. Right. The shocked manager yelled, “What the hell are you guys doing in here?”…and threw us out. It was difficult to explain. And when we really got into trouble, we would tell people we were from nearby Landmark Baptist Church. I’m pretty sure my friend Matt Holman who pastors there has forgiven us.

From there the bits got stranger and more outrageous while our people relaxed, laughed more and more, and church became a not-so-scary-place to invite your unbelieving friends.

One Easter in the ‘90’s we produced a video (we had bought our first digital non-linear over-priced editing program) with Steve inserted into actual scenes from the perennial “Ten Commandments” movie with Charlton Heston. Walking with the Israelites between the walls of water in the Red Sea were some of us holding “Free Car Wash” signs with snorkels. An older religious couple reamed me out afterwards for doing something so disrespectful and irreverent…even though I attempted to explain we were poking fun at a movie, not the actual ten commandments. A movie with Edward G. Robinson as the rebelling Israelite Dathan. Seriously. They were unappeased.

Or the weekend we held our services at the Convention Center downtown and couldn’t find Steve. I ran out the side door to discover him at Cincinnati Gardens (where we had met the previous year for Easter). Steve was practicing figure skating (we had a double doing spins) while waiting for the service to start. When I told him we were at a different arena, we hopped into the PastorCopter (primitive CGI), flew him downtown where he promptly jumped out of the copter and through some fake open bay doors in the ceiling of the Convention Center…where we simultaneously dropped a dummy dressed up as Steve from the catwalks of the room that landed with a dull thud behind some equipment. Steve popped up from behind the equipment smiling amid cheers. Except for a small child crying who thought it was real.

When Steve almost died from a medical procedure gone horribly wrong, there was a heaviness over the church for weeks. On the weekend he finally returned to speak from a wheelchair, we knew we needed to lighten things up. We produced a video where he admits he’s tired of nothing exciting to do in a wheelchair, so we take him out for some “stunt riding”, substituting him again with a dummy dressed as him and holding on to a rope tied to a pickup truck that “accidentally” takes off in reverse and slams into him while Steve yells “Woohoo!”…followed by a series of Jackass-type stunts (before Jackass!). At one point, we attached a bunch of bungie cords to his wheelchair and throw “him” off a bridge to disastrous results. Laughter filled the room. When Steve was wheeled live into the auditorium, people were thrilled. During the service I noticed a young boy in a wheelchair in the last row with his mom. I was mortified when she approached me after the service, held my breath to expect the worse, when she said, “My son hasn’t walked since birth…and that was the funniest thing we’ve seen! He laughed and laughed!”

Whew. I felt like I dodged a bullet.

Even as tame as all those seem now, it was ridiculously radical in those days. And created an environment that screamed, “We don’t take ourselves very seriously. But we are very serious about introducing you to the Kingdom of God.”

And though he’ll never know it, Letterman helped us create a context where church would no longer look like your dad’s church, that stuffy, self-righteous, boring, religious, powerless, judgmental stereotype that most unchurched and dechurched people had jettisoned for all the right and wrong reasons. His anti-establishment comedy seemed mildly reflective of the attitude Jesus expressed when He was warned not to go to Jerusalem because the religious establishment of that day—the phony religious leader Herod—was out to kill Him. Jesus simply responded, “Go and tell that fox I’m coming anyway…” and went on about His business of healing and setting folks free.

We owe a debt of gratitude to a clever comedian whom I hope one day finds his true value and worth in a Father who loves him deeply despite his idiosyncrasies and brokenness...just like ours.

Thank you, Mr. Letterman. It was a good run.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

vibe...and your church's culture

Okay, dear readers (and this is mostly for pastors), before perusing this, there are two assumptions you have to agree with for this post to make any sense:

Assumption number 1: your purpose in life is defined by how God rescued you.
Assumption number 2: the core of your life purpose is helping others to experience that as well and to know Jesus of Nazareth as the Rightful King of the earth.

Are we fairly agreed? Then let’s move on…

In bringing people who are estranged from God back to Him, there are two ways to accomplish that: we either attract them or we go find them. And if we do this in the context of a community of believers, we either create environments designed to attract people and/or we develop missional or incarnational communities embedded in the area that we want to reach. And frankly, both approaches are closely joined at the hip. Let’s think both/and for a few moments…

Consider your own neighborhood. When you first moved into your neighborhood, you probably didn’t knock on your neighbors’ doors to tell them they needed to repent. More than likely, you began “get-to-know-them” conversations while cutting the grass or washing your car. And then perhaps you invited them over to grill out. Maybe you took a big risk and even started an “explorers” Bible study. Regardless, you thought about your environment—probably straightened up the house, vacuumed, cleaned the bathroom, baked some great smelling brownies or picked up some decent wine and brie. Whatever. You invited them into your family’s emotional field.

In many ways, you were first wanting to win them to yourself…so they might know you’re fairly normal and to earn enough relational capital to share the most important thing in your life: your story and how it connects with God’s.

It wasn’t about making them an evangelistic project. That’s creepy. But it was all about love; you were genuinely caring for them…and motivated by the Holy Spirit to share the Best News of the Universe: that God loves them and was offering amnesty...that heaven had invaded earth.

But what never fails to baffle me is how often many pastors ever give a moment’s thought about the atmosphere of their church environments. Or their church’s culture…and how that’s expressed. We’re inviting people into our “family’s” emotional field.

It’s the vibe.

Vibe is a term jazz musicians used for years about the feel music has to have. It’s all about atmosphere…it’s what others feel as you do business. You can play the right notes with the hippest players on the best equipment, but not have any vibe. It just doesn’t feel right.

Or imagine going to two different parties in one night. Both of them have the same elements: food, friends and music. But one of them is a total drag and feels draining…while the other one is a blast and energizing. Chances are pretty good we’ll avoid the former party at that place the next time. Vibe is critical.

Every organization has a vibe. Families have a vibe. You can spend a few minutes in a home and quickly pick up that this family does not have a lot of fun together...or this family is so unstructured nothing is ever accomplished...or so structured that creativity is choked. If the atmosphere were such that I prefer not visiting that house again, I would say there is no vibe, at least a good one.

Every church has a vibe as well. Your church’s atmosphere is charged with something…or nothing. When thinking about the weekend services of your church, I would consider five essential vibe assessors: Participation, Energy, Inclusiveness, Quality and Flow.

Are people engaged? Are they actively listening during the teaching? Are they responding in some way during worship? Is there any attempt to assess people experiencing God in some tangible way? Was there any laughter during the teaching (Humor is a big deal: it’s a major indicator of icebreaking. I used to tell our creative team, “Theology is easy; humor is hard.”)? Were people invited in any way to receive the Good News? Are people given an opportunity to connect further with the church and are responding in some measurable way? On a scale of one-to-ten, how would you honestly rate the level of participation? Even if it’s highly produced (not my personal leaning…), it still has to have opportunity for people to feel they were engaged in some way. Of course the numbers will be higher in a small group or church than in a megachurch setting.

Were the worship songs directed to God? Did the music feel more like a dirge than a celebration (Vineyard churches must learn to balance intimate worship with up-tempo celebration songs)? Did the people on the platform (worship leader, transition person or host, speaker) appear warm, authentically energetic, and loose/informal…or cold, bored, disingenuous or cheesy (even if you personally know they’re not like that)? Was the message inspirational/challenging in some way? On a scale from (1) boring or irrelevant to (10) a call-to-action or soul-touching, where was the message? Is there some sense of the presence of God?

Were the words to songs easily accessible as well as understandable? Was the room lighting appropriate (allowing for some anonymity yet warm and inviting)? Was the language culturally-sensitive and inclusive or too “inside” and filled with buzzwords and Christianese? Were there enough descriptions and explanations of the order of the service? Was there culturally-inclusive music before and after the service? Did the graphics seem friendly and inviting? Were the announcements too much for “family insiders”? How does your hospitality team come off?—are they busy talking with each other, or targeting people like desperate used-car salespeople? Did the service come off authentically transparent?

How are the worship leader’s abilities (unprepared, distractingly poor or confident and genuinely worshipful)? How did the worship leader connect with the congregation?—did he or she have a good rapport and warmth or seem remote and weirdly spiritual? How did the worship band look: bored, like they just woke up or picked up their instrument for the first time? How was the sound? Was the message engaging and challenging or boring and irrelevant? Was it too long, rambling, redundant? (IMHO, great communicators can handle 35 to 45 minute talks, but most of us could cut the fluff and have way better messages by keeping them at no more than 25 minutes. And a little reality check: great communicators are few and far between. How many b-ballers actually make it to the NBA? There are only a few Andy Stanleys…)

Once again, how long was the message? Enough said. How long was the service (if you want to know how long it should be, ask your volunteers in the nursery—you’ll get an earful)? Did people leave wanting more (that’s a good sign)? Was the order of the service paced well? Was there a sense of continuity with each part? Did the worship leader talk between songs? (Stop it. Please.) How long were the announcements?—people automatically tune out during this part. Believe me. Why torture them? Did the service seem connected thematically (Really?—an up-tempo song after the message on crucifixion?)? Did things feel disjointed?

A final note: Of course these are subjective. But as a leader, you have to begin to benchmark them against what you want to achieve in creating invitational environments. If you don’t create and protect the vibe, believe me, someone else in your church will. I would ask an outsider to give you their honest opinion of what they experience in your service…from the time they drove into the parking lot to when they left.

What culture has your church created? Better yet, what culture do you want to create?

Sunday, January 11, 2015

andraé crouch and the jesus movement

And now for a musical journey…

Last night I was working on a little personal music project at home on Audacity. When I finally trudged off to bed in the wee hours, I checked Google news and happened to stumble across a report that Andraé Crouch had died. A flood of memories came swirling back.

To the uninitiated, Andraé will simply be eulogized as a seven-time Grammy-winning gospel singer/songwriter. More astute reporters will mention his crossover choir performances with Michael Jackson, Madonna, Elton John and others. But for my money, those all pale compared to his contribution to the unique move of the Holy Spirit in the seventies called the Jesus Movement and the accompanying charismatic outpouring that rocked churches and a disassociated generation of young people who had grown up with the assassinations of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War protests, the women’s movement, the sexual revolution, a burgeoning drug culture and a chasm-sized generation gap.

Into a disillusioned and fractured society came an underground, powerhouse move of God. When my own life took a 180 degree turn after meeting numbers of Christ-transformed people, I left the bar band I had been playing in and found myself as a musician searching for some sounds I could relate to. Not easy in those days. But someone loaned me Phil Keaggy’s first solo record; I remember seeing his Ohio-based band Glass Harp opening up for the Kinks and Humble Pie some years earlier at the Ludlow Garage (apparently November 15, 1969 according to the plaque embedded in the sidewalk on Ludlow Avenue) and thinking, “Wow, this guy looks and sings like a mini-McCartney, but plays guitar like a banshee.” The “What A Day” album was Beatle-ish, childlike and delightful.

I think the next cassette (remember those?) someone gave me was by a totally unknown artist to me: Andraé Crouch and the Disciples. I thought, “Really? They picked that cheesy name?” But one listen hooked me. These were serious players…and I came to find out that the nucleus of his band in that day was a little-known group called Sonlight—serious jazz/rock musicians who were Christians…and white guys (funky Bill Maxwell had me on the downbeat). That made Andraé revolutionary in those days.

But there was something different about Andraé’s music that I couldn’t put my finger on. Christians would use a nebulous word to me: anointed. To this day I’m not sure I know how that’s measured, but Andraé seemed to have it in shovelfuls. I was a skinny white drummer who nourished his musical chops as a youngster on everything from prog-rock groups like Yes to Joe Sample’s jazz/funk Crusaders (now that was an interesting name for a secular band). Andraé’s music had a personalized devotional quality that was different from everything I knew and wrapped in an infectious groove. “Live At Carnegie Hall” awakened my soul in a way that I couldn’t articulate as a brand new follower of Jesus. I needed more of that.

And so one day I found myself riding my trusty Schwinn ten-speed up a hill on Montgomery Road near Silverton when a car sped past that flashed a bumpersticker with the words “Andraé Crouch” and “Cincinnati Gardens” on it. At least, that’s all I could read on it. No way, I thought. I began pedaling as fast as I could to try to catch up. By this time it was a couple of lights ahead but I could see in the distance that the car turned into an apartment complex. I was panting like a dog when I finally biked into the parking lot filled with cars. I identified the car and was desperate to find the driver for more info. But which apartment? I did the only sensible thing—I just began knocking on doors asking if they drove a car with an Andraé Crouch bumpersticker on it. It happened that everyone who answered the door was an African-American who looked askance at the skinny, long-haired, pasty-white, out-of-breath twenty-something wanting them to identify their vehicle.

But eventually I found the driver. He was totally surprised and just laughed—“You read that on my car?” Turns out his church—James Temple Church of God in Christ—was promoting it…plus, he was selling tickets. Score!

A few weeks later I was basking in that mysterious anointing, watching the diversity on the stage making great music and singing unashamedly about Jesus, and, as a new believer, discovering the power of worship. Andraé was so influential in my life that when my friend Paul Niehaus and I formed a little acoustic duo, we attempted to translate his music for two long-haired white guys banging on tinny Ovation guitars in local coffeehouses. God forgive us.

Andraé marched at the front of the Jesus Revolution, sometimes playing for nearly all-white audiences. He was a pioneer, providing a soundtrack for a fresh wave of the Spirit, later risked being misunderstood by the Church for his forays into mainstream music, and, like all of us, had his own personal struggles.

But I, for one, am so glad he was loaned to this planet for the time we had. Thanks, God, for the job you gave Andraé to do—that anointing-thing really worked on this guy.