Every young preacher has their firsts. Today was one for me. We’re in the middle of our annual Stewardship Campaign at the church I serve. In the mix of themes, I drew a theme to preach that I’ve never preached on before — money. You should know that I don’t have a single memory of money being preached on in the church I grew up in. Frankly it was sort of treated like politics or sex — you never talk about it in mixed company. So yesterday I preached on the lectionary text for the day (Mark 10:17-31) and geared toward a message on the importance of financial giving.
In preparing for this sermon, I decided to call a couple of friends. I was really having a hard time with what direction to take with the sermon. The truth is, I was struggling with my own personal discomfort in talking about money. Since this is a growing edge for me as a young pastor, I decided it would be a good idea to seek the counsel of 2 friends who are more seasoned than I am and who also serve larger, more wealthy churches (their contexts mirror the one I preach to in this regard). The advice they gave was invaluable.
Here are a couple of big points of advice I used to guide the construction of the sermon:
This sermon was a true learning experience for me. I’m very much a narrative-style preacher who loves stories and creative twists and turns to make a point. But this sermon turned out to be much more practical and straightforward. No stories — just practical talk about money and generosity. It also took a lot of discipline for me because I always want my sermons to be loved by people. The risk you run in this sort of sermon is the “hard truth” might offend someone. However if you’re being true to the text, Jesus is very offensive to our realities. As preachers we spend a good deal of time wanting to be liked, so sermons on money are great opportunities to set that desire aside for a Sunday. The timing also worked well because pledge cards went out in the mail this past week so they were fresh on the minds of the congregation. They also have 2 weeks to consider what that pledge will be before Commitment Sunday. In the future I think I’ll always design a sermon on money a couple weeks before pledge cards are due that way people have some time to think about their pledge before they turn them in. All in all, it was a great learning experience and one I’ll come back to for years to come.
How do you preach on money? What are your “do’s” and “don’ts” when it comes to preaching on giving?
I guess I’m a nostalgic sap sometimes – I can admit that. It’s been 3 years since I began the task of blogging through Covered in the Master’s Dust. What began as a way to process thoughts while in the midst of a seminary education has become the primary medium whereby I try to speak to a variety of audiences. The site has become a place to collect my published works as well as experiment in my writing. It’s also been a tremendous source of communication for church members. I can’t count how many times I’ve had deep conversations on faith with church members based on something from this blog. I’m eternally grateful for those holy moments.
As active readers know, I have a tendency to stay with a topic for multiple posts. For the readers who have stuck in there with me, thank you for your patience. I know how I feel when I hear (or read) someone harping on an issue ad nauseaum. I hope I have exercised the grace of “enough is enough” more times than not. But whether the posts were on topics such as discipleship, evangelism, church decline, or the faith of young adults, folks have interacted with this site in ways that I could never have imagined. I always appreciate good comments and especially good critique.
One of my favorite comments to recieve is how this site helps others find inspiration to write. I think pastors should keep an active blog because it makes us disciplined writers and better thinkers. If you can weave thoughts in writing into some coherent movement, begin with a good hook, and end with a solid ending, then it can only help your preaching. I was inspired to blog by other bloggers and I’m always thrilled to know that my blog has helped another pastor get into the habit.
Below I’m posting the “Top 10 posts” from the blog over the last 3 years. These posts got the most traffic of any of my posts and I wanted to give readers a chance to engage with them again. I haven’t edited any of them so I hope you’ll notice that my writing has improved some over these 3 years. Some of these surprised me because I never thought they would get the traffic they got. Others not on the list surprised me because I felt they were examples of some of my better writing and yet never got the notice other posts got. Go figure.
Top 10 Posts All-Tme
- The Real Meaning of Matthew 25:31-46
- General Conference and Coming Clean About Taboo Topics
- 10 Things Christians Need to Remember This Election Season
- Women’s Witness to the Gospel
- Why You Can’t Solve Your Church’s “Young Adult Problem”
- It’s Not About You, It’s About Jesus AND the Church
- Says Who? The Problem With Claiming Biblical Authority
- Discipleship and the Problem of American Individualism
- Fundamentalism: My Way or the Highway
- Lessons on Being a Young Adult Clergy in the UMC
Why is it that church leaders want to “hear from young adults” as long as they can frame the conversation? Why is it when young adults are asked about the church, every conversation centers on what’s wrong with the system? And why is it so common that the aftermath of these conversations are riddled with older church leaders shaking their heads at the “sense of entitlement” on display among younger clergy?
United Methodists are probably aware of a meeting that happened recently sponsored by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. This was the first of what promises to be many meetings funded by a new line-item of $7 million dollars from the denomination marked for the development of more young clergy for the ordained ministry. The meeting was largely geared towards assessing the current track towards ordained ministry [Note: I was not present so if I'm wrong, please correct me and know that I'm merely reporting what was reported by The United Methodist Reporter in their article]. While the entire gathering seemed largely positive (despite the tone of articles), there was a good deal of critique levied against the current system of ordination.
I’m also reminded of a gathering held last year in my own annual conference where young clergy gathered for dialogue. The event was a good time of fellowship and it was geared towards giving young clergy an opportunity to give voice to thoughts on the church system — Does the appointment-making process suit young clergy? How does the system ignore the needs of young clergy? Can the system be improved in order to better meet the needs of young clergy?
All of this is fine and good but I think gatherings like this have created a myth that somehow young adults are a growing voice for change in The United Methodist Church.
You see, when meetings are geared towards airing grievances, then that’s what you’ll get. If we want to empower young clergy to help address issues of decline in the church, why are gatherings focused largely on complaints about the shortcomings of our system?
Let me applaud both gatherings for what they were intended to be — a first step in empowering young clergy. But why are we not talking more about ministry?
Battling the Sin of Entitlement
Could it be that in a culture of decline, one of our major issues is our collective sense of entitlement? I’ve got some older pastor friends who’ve told me about “entitlement among younger clergy” — and they’re right. We have a lot of debt and complicated family situations and it can be frustrating at times to work in a system better suited for a 1950s style of living. But for those of us who grew up in The United Methodist Church, served on committees as lay people, answered a call to ministry, and now serve as clergy we also know the temptation of entitlement is something you learn from others. All of the debate centered on guaranteed appointments, more apportionment giving, and salaries are laced with a sense of entitlement among all clergy — “we deserve 100% job security,” “we need a large conference staff and spending accounts even when local churches and lay people are suffering,” “I deserve that raise because I work harder than most.”
I don’t think everyone in our system operates out of a system of entitlement — please hear that. Like many sins, entitlement is a temptation that lurks below the surface and masks itself as a choice for something good. But all clergy, young and old alike, suffer from this temptation whether we want to admit it or not.
What Should We Talk About With Young Adults?
If we want to avoid nit-picking the system in favor of dialogues centered around ministry, where should we begin? If The United Methodist Church is serious about reaching out to younger adults in the pews, then leaders should get serious about learning what makes a young adult in 2012 tick. If most church leaders are 50 and older, then there’s a growing need for these leaders to learn about other generations. Young clergy are a great place to begin this educational process! As young adults, a majority of the people we pastor are old enough to be our parents and grandparents. On the other hand, older leaders are largely pastoring their contemporaries or folks old enough to be their parents.
With the gap widening between those over-50 and under-50 in the church, what if we could have grand conversations where learning happens across generations? Older leaders can learn about a generation foreign to them, and younger pastors can learn how to be leaders.
If the young clergy are to lead, then we need to grow into it starting now. You’re not a leader simply by virtue of being a part of a demographic. However we can’t operate in a system of “pay your dues” any longer — the church won’t survive it over the long run. And if older leaders want to mentor and truly lead the next generation, then it’s time for more education on what it means to be a young adult — the church won’t survive decisions, sermons, and vision devoid of the concerns of a younger generation.
One thing is for sure, exercises in placating young adults by giving room for them to vent are fine and dandy if they eventually lead to true dialogue about ministry. But dialogue requires one side be ready to talk about ministry — not themselves — and the other side be ready to listen as though something is at stake beyond their own personal interests.
What are some examples of gatherings where ministry and leadership are the topics of conversation? Where have you seen clergy across generations help each other in ministry and leadership?
How can pastors more effectively speak to younger adults through preaching? I asked myself this question after reading an online conversation early Saturday morning. I happened to find a series of tweets from Carol Howard Merritt:
@CarolHoward: Using a John Hughes sermon illustration. Almost cut it our because half of the congregation wouldn’t relate.
@CarolHoward: Made me realize how much I cut out Gen X references. Meanwhile I almost feel like I was alive in the 60s, I’ve heard so much about it…
@CarolHoward: Made me realize how much I cut out Gen X references. Meanwhile I almost feel like I was alive in the 60s, I’ve heard so much about it…
When it comes to sermon illustrations, you use what speaks most clearly to your audience. And if the average age on a Sunday morning at most churches is any indication, then there’s a good chance references from the culture of younger generations will not speak to a majority of listeners. I’m a preacher born in 1982. And I admit that I’ve struggled at times with this dilemma because I know there’s a reference I could use to make a great point that could get lost with a good number of my listeners.
So how can we broaden our base of cultural references in preaching?
Now before I go on, I do want to offer a couple of caveats along with this post:
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about why it’s important to speak to my generation. There’s a great deal of talk in The United Methodist Church about reaching new generations. But if we’re committed to making young people a priority, then preachers need to become students of that generation.
I made a mass appeal for help with this blog post on Facebook. One of the most common responses was something like:
Don’t just throw references out trying to “be cool” or “relevant.” If pastors want to use references from a younger generation, then those references should come out of relationships with younger people.
Make no mistake, if you want younger people plugging into the life of your congregation, then you better be authentic. These sermon illustrations aren’t meant to be cheap appeals to younger adults in an attempt to seem “hip” or “cool” from the pulpit. They are, however, an attempt to be mindful that some of the people you’re ministering with (or hope to minister with) may not get every song reference or cultural nod to the 1960s and early-70s. If you want the gospel to come alive for them, learn more about them, strike up a relationship with them, and then remember to occasionally use references from “their world” to drive a point home in a sermon.
So without further adieu, here’s a working list of cultural references to begin your education:
(This one is tough because the rise of the Internet has created a huge diversity in popular music. But here are a few artists and why they’re important for my generation)
- Nirvana: This band marked the end of the 80s punk/hair band era many Gen-Xers fondly remember. They ushered in a new genre of music known as alternative/grunge. Besides than, the lyrics are pretty poetic.
- Lilith Fair: For many women of my generation, this solidified the identity of the female artist. Keep in mind that this identity is also in tension to the hyper-sexualized image of many current female pop artists. But nonetheless, it was a powerful breakthrough for women in music.
- Reality Show/YouTube Music Stars: Again, I admit this list was the toughest to compile because of the access to so much music due to downloading. But you should keep abreast of the fact that the hottest new artist in music could come from a reality TV show or a viral video on YouTube (granted the odds are they’re more likely to be a “one-hit wonder”). This is an avenue of being discovered that could seem foreign to folks from previous generations. But in the age of the Internet, this process of becoming a star can happen in a moment’s notice.TV Shows
- How I Met Your Mother: It’s quickly becoming an iconic show on what it means to be a 20/30-something in today’s world. The writers are brilliant and cleverly weave a great deal of contemporary culture into the plot lines.
- The Cosby Show: This was the first sit-com on television that depicted an affluent African-American family. This was huge in shaping the worldview of those of us who grew up watching this show. Many of us never knew how taboo this was — it just became normal for us.
- Reality TV: I know many of us wish this genre never came to be. But a well-timed writers’ strike in Hollywood gave enough time for this to become a new normal. Like it or not, you can’t understate the impact on how folks my age view this as impactful.
- The Daily Show/The Colbert Report: In an age where cable news polarizes reporting based on partisan preferences, many young people have turned to master-satirists, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, to offer perspective on current events. The writing staffs for both shows are truly brilliant. In the case of Stewart, many contributors on his show have gone on to become some of the biggest names in comedic acting. Remember these shows are not the major source of news for young adults — they’re funny because they assume viewers already know the news and are looking for a different perspective.Other noteworthy shows currently breaking barriers and/or shaping the genre of television:
- The Office: One of the earliest breaks from the laugh track sit-com style. Brilliant and it trusted viewers to know the funny parts to laugh at
- Modern Family: Another brilliant “laugh track free” show. It’s also a testimony to the complexity of family and the beauty of families who can function despite their defying the nuclear family image.
- Any Show on HBO or Showtime: Shorter seasons and better writing largely due to a freedom from advertiser dollars influencing decisions
- Parks and Recreation: Brilliant female lead to an ensemble cast.
- 30 Rock: Another brilliant female lead to an ensemble cast.
- Up All Night: We’ll see the longevity of this show but it’s become the hot new show for everyone new to having a baby. It’s a cultural marker for new parents and the beauty of DVR is we can watch whenever we want.
- Forrest Gump (ironic that it was set in an era “before our time” and is still such an influential movie)
- Lord of the Rings Trilogy
- Harry Potter
- Most any Will Ferrell movie
- Judd Apatow is writing iconic films at a similar clip to John Hughes
- Trey Parker and Matt Stone: South Park and the Broadway hit The Book of Mormon — need I say more?
Important Historical Events
I got a lot of great feedback on other items as well. For example, many folks mentioned iconic sayings or catch phrases from various television, movie, music, and commercials. All of these things speak to formative pieces of culture that have shaped who we are. If you’re a preacher, then it’s vitally important to be familiar with these things — first for the sake of real relationship, and second in order to connect the gospel to the real lives of younger adults. If we’re serious about reaching out to younger adults in the church, then we better get serious about getting to know them. Otherwise I promise they’ll sniff out the manipulative tactics and do their dead-level best to never, ever grace the doors of our churches.
So why not begin in relationship and allow those relationships to connect in the life of the sermon? You might be surprised what happens when you broaden your base of references, build relationships with new people, and let the gospel speak in new and exciting ways…
Note: This is by no means an exhausted list. Please feel free to add to it in the comment box below!
Dining together as a family around a common table is quickly becoming a lost art in our fast-paced world. We always seem to be on the go. We have things to do, people to see, and items to check off our never-ending to-do lists. There never seems to be time to finish everything we need to get finished. This problem has also led to the massive rise of the fast-food industry. Food “on the go” becomes a convenient alternative when you’re constantly fifteen minutes late for something.
It makes you wonder if the Church hasn’t fallen victim to the same sort of mentality. We try so hard to accommodate people’s busy schedules. We add worship services at odd hours. We try to offer a smattering of programs to meet the needs of everyone. Pastors and staff members face the daunting task of putting on the very best programs and worship while simultaneously seeing to the needs of individual church members as much as humanly possible. In a world that longs for witnesses of justice, too often we seem more concerned about meeting consumer needs. Where does it end?
I’m reminded of the infamous words of Stanley Hauerwas when he said that “the primary task of the church is not to make the world more just, but make the world the world.” You see, Dr. Hauerwas astutely points out that any notion of justice we try to claim in the church begins when we distinguish between the goals of the church and the goals of the world. Quite often, this requires that we in the church confess our sin of being a little too enthralled with the agenda of the world.
We must remember that justice in the biblical sense is the symbiotic relationship between justice and righteousness. The Old Testament prophets remind us of this reality over and over again. As Wesleyans, we could argue that true justice comes in the form of lives transformed by holiness of heart and life. To be a Christian concerned about justice, we are required to be engaged both spiritually and physically in our faith.
And that’s why I believe the greatest act of justice we can do as the church is to celebrate the Lord’s Table as often as possible. It is in the words of Eucharistic liturgy that we are reminded of our call to “be for the world the Body of Christ redeemed by his blood.” There is no act of justice that can preempt this call of witnessing to the saving grace of God in the world.
I know there are many who might argue nonprofit agencies, political action groups, or even the Occupy Movement witness to a unique sense of justice that we in the church should strive for more often. Some would even say that we’re more the church when we’re in the world being active in our faith. How could justice be exemplified in a sanctuary or gathering place where only a few are gathered?
John Wesley notes in his sermon, “The Duty of Constant Communion”:
every one, therefore, who has either any desire to please God, or any love of his own soul, obey God, and consult the good of his own soul, by communicating [taking communion] every time he can; like the first Christians, with whom the Christian sacrifice was a constant part of the Lord’s day service. And for several centuries they received it almost every day: Four times a week always, and every saint’s day beside. Accordingly, those that joined in the prayers of the faithful never failed to partake of the blessed sacrament.
It is at the Table that we are reminded in the most vivid way of who we are and whose we are.
By the mysterious grace of God, we’re transformed into more just and righteous people whenever we gather around the table to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. This doesn’t mean that we don’t exercise a social conscience through activity in the world. It doesn’t mean that we neglect to pray like the prophet for the day when “justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24 CEB). But it does mean that before we take up a political agenda set by the world, we gather around the Table to be reminded of our true identity—as a people who are in need of grace, willing to share that grace with all who are present, and ready to be compelled back into the world for having been a part of this special meal.
To be a people marked by justice through Eucharistic practice we’ll have to reprioritize our life in the local church. We have to call people to a countercultural way of being once again. We should call people to lives of more simplicity, patience, and discipline. All of these virtues are undergirded by God’s grace and practiced through the ritual act of Holy Communion. Instead of constantly trying to “meet people’s needs,” maybe we should seek to redefine those needs. So, instead of creating churches based on a fast-food mentality where you can get things “your way right away,” maybe we should, as United Methodists, be the church that would dare to hold each other accountable. And by the grace of God we could truly be “one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.” I think we might just be surprised by the spirit of justice that forms when we take the time to gather around the Table together.
The online version of this issue can be found here
Remembering a Body of Work
Looking back over some posts from the past year, I realize that I’ve been harping on the topic of discipleship for sometime. I’ve written about the role of discipleship in the hierarchy of the United Methodist Church. I’ve written about the lack of talk on discipleship at our Methodist General Conference this past May. That piece followed a piece on how General Conference couldn’t save the church because we all knew it couldn’t focus on discipleship. I’ve written about how small group ministries are misunderstood as so-called “drivers of vitality” in the local church. I’ve written about how our American spirit of individualism hurts our development as disciples of Jesus Christ (and again here). I’ve talked for sometime on the need to rethink what it means when we say “making disciples for the transformation of the world” here, here, and here.
Enough on Theory — How and Where Can Discipleship Happen?
Since I am so new to ministry in the local church, I figure that while I’m fairly deep on theory I’m probably a little shallow on practical experience. However as a young adult in the ministry, I depend on those older than me to offer advice from their experience. So I will give you my assumptions on the looming questions of how and where discipleship happens, but I will do my best to put them in the form of questions. It’s up to you, the reader, to supply answers and direction from your own experiences.
Are We Biased Towards the Larger Church?
In all of the discussion on congregational vitality in The United Methodist Church, I can’t help but wonder whether or not we have a particular bias towards the larger church? Churches identified as uniquely “vital” are, more often than not, large churches with large worshipping communities. This is in spite of the fact that recent research has shown that only 4-5% of churches in The United Methodist Church worship 350+ on an average Sunday. In other words, are many of our churches not considered vital because they’re not like the top 5%? Though the Towers Watson report notes that 59% of vital congregations are among small churches, it notes that “larger churches are more likely to be vital” according to the standards used in the study.
Furthermore, our Book of Discipline is formatted with a bias towards the larger church. Just ask any pastor who’s tried to fill out the required committees in a small church. It’s nearly impossible to cover all of your required committees without asking people to cover multiple roles. How is it possible to concentrate on cultivating a culture of discipleship in a small church when everyone is run ragged covering committee work?
Have we created a church culture whereby small churches are left to feel inferior because the ministry we place on pedestals most often comes out of larger churches who benefit from more people and resources to do ministry? And I appreciate our mega churches “giving back” by putting on resourcing workshops. But there’s a big difference between pastoring a small church that’s just been planted and pastoring a small church that’s been historically small.
Can Large Churches Actually Disciple?
In the drive to grow (not to mention the drive to just carry out the basic ministries of the church) how equipped are our larger churches for the work of discipling? After 2 years as an Associate Pastor in a larger congregation I can testify to the efforts it takes to meet these 4 core areas of ministry for a local congregation: Worship, Teaching Basic Doctrine, Pastoral Care, Community Activity. Even if you’re able to do these things exceptionally, you’re still lacking in the area of discipleship. Are these great demands on a local church why discipleship has been swept under the rug for so long?
In all of our talk about vitality, we seem to be describing ways to more effectively meet the 4 basic areas while simultaneously growing in membership as a result — is this the same as actively forming disciples of Jesus Christ?
Quick, What’s a Disciple?
A disciple is defined as a follower of Jesus Christ. We can nuance that all day but essentially this is what we’re describing. In a previous post I defined discipleship in the local church as: The process of being formed in the ways of Jesus Christ as taught in Scriptures and expressed in acts of justice, mercy, worship, and devotion under the empowering guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, the work of the local church is twofold. First, the local church must intentionally and creatively make the process of discipleship a primary ministry of the church. Secondly, an emphasis on process and accountability must be a part of any ministry of discipleship.
Questions for You, the Reader