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
This is the “meat” of a column published in The Macon Telegraph this past Saturday. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a response to a column in the Saturday paper in 2 years of writing for the publication. I’ve gathered a few of these from other lists like this outstanding list published in Relevant Magazine. I’ve also added some of my own. If you can think of more, feel free to add some of your own. If you want to critique any of these, feel free to voice your opinion — just know that I reserve the right to delete comments that become un-Christian.
Ten Things Christians Need to Remember About This Election Season
1. People in both political parties go to church. God is neither a Democrat nor a Republican. No political party has a monopoly on the will of God and there are good, Christian people who affiliate with both parties.
2. Talk radio and cable “news” only want ratings — it’s about the money. Remember, we live in a time where news stations would rather incite than inform the electorate if it means better ratings.
3. Those who argue about politics don’t love their country more than others. Our passion for issues comes out of a deep and abiding love for country. Just because someone disagrees with you does not mean they somehow hate the country.
4. Thinking a party’s platform is not flawed is a mistake. A lot of wheeling and dealing goes into forming a party’s platform. Compromises are made and it quickly becomes a document for a large group of constituents. This means it attempts to please everyone in one way or another. Think of it as more of a work-in progress.
5. Scripture tells us to pray for governing leaders (2 Timothy 2: 1-4) and to respect those in authority (Romans 13: 1-7) — whether we voted for them or not. When we mock or denigrate current or future leaders, the Holy Spirit is grieved. Christians are called to offer a witness to the world that rises above name-calling and insults. Period.
6. Don’t be paranoid. America has functioned and even thrived under both Democrat and Republican leadership. God is the only one truly in charge. Great leaders come in all shapes and sizes. We will not fall apart as a nation as a result of a single election.
7. Stop saying, “This is the most important election in our history.” We’re not nearly as unique as we might want to think we are. There will be another election and another one after that. We’re all striving to grow and become a better nation with every election.
8. Don’t spread those toxic political e-mails. Be the one to stop the circulation of propaganda-driven materials. Lovingly ask friends to stop sending them to you and be a witness for civility.
9. Don’t circulate partisan materials at your church. Encouraging people to vote is good. Telling them who to vote for from the pulpit or any other sacred space is not why the church exists.
10. Hold a prayer service the day after Election Day. With Election Day on a Tuesday, this could be a great way to use your weekly Wednesday time at church. Hold a service of prayer. Open your church all day for people to drop in and pray. Distribute liturgy and prayers for our nation and encourage people to make that a part of their day. We are the church, and that means we’re a people called to prayer.
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!
I guess I can’t really help it, but every four years I follow political races like they’re sporting events. Now you must know that my interest comes from the fact that my background was in political science. Before I was called into the ministry, I majored in political science in undergrad and planned to go to law school. My great hope was to work in politics or cover politics as a journalist. So I admit that I can be a bit of a political junkie at times.
There is, however, a darker side to the sport of politics. We’ve all seen it at some time or another. Political elections just have a special way of bringing out the absolute worst in us. The commercials invade our televisions and over time whip us up into a frenzy. Cable news networks are counting on the fact that we’re looking to raise our blood pressure a few ticks so they specialize in offering heated debate – sometimes based in facts and other times not so much. Social media doesn’t help either. Friends can share articles and commentary from all sorts of hateful sources. It’s hard to get away from the constant barrage of political noise.
Before long we can’t help but reflect this negative spirit. Christians can probably tell horror stories of Bible studies and small group meetings that run amok whenever a political discussion begins. Before you know it, the lesson gets dissolved into a full blown argument.
As much as I enjoy the strategy of politics, I’m reminded that it’s also the source of terrible division among folks who are supposed to be brothers and sisters in Christ. When you find yourself in the throws of the political season, it can be hard to remember that Christ calls us to love each other – even those who vote differently than we do. As the church, we must try to find ways to be witnesses of this love and grace. The church’s job is to pray for the world and work to transform it as we ourselves are transformed into the very likeness of Christ. This can be really tough when we’re passionate about politics at the same time. But it’s possible.
Here are a few simple (and profound) ways to embody the love of Christ during these final two months of the campaign season:
Be an ambassador for peace and reconciliation. Cable news networks will only try to raise our blood pressure between now and November. Remember that folks will need to hear a healing word of hope – a reminder that no matter who is elected to office, God is still God and the hope of Jesus Christ is eternal. Most importantly, remember that after Election Day, we will still be the church. Whether you have political allies or enemies on the other side of the pew on Sundays should not matter in the light of the fact that we remain brothers and sisters in Christ.
If you stop by this blog often, you’ll remember that I wrote a post last week advocating the idea that in order to form a culture of discipleship in the local church, we should preach and teach our baptismal vows instead of relying solely on our membership vows to the job. I got a lot of great feedback through a number of forums including the comment section on this blog, Facebook, and Twitter. In fact, there was so much mixed feedback I feel the need to come back with a follow up post on the topic.
Baptismal Vows and Membership Vows: A Review
Our Baptismal Vows are as follows:
1. Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?
2. Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
3. Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?
**According to the grace given you, will you remain faithful members of Christ’s holy Church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world? [More on this one later...]
And our Membership Vows:
As members of Christ’s universal Church, will you be loyal to Christ through The United Methodist Church, and do all in your power to strengthen its ministries? [Membership Vows for the UMC]
Will you participate in the ministries of this church with your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness? [Membership Vows for the local congregation]
Addressing the Criticism
I had a number of people question the necessity of rooting a ministry of discipleship in our baptismal vows. One of the common responses went something like this: “If people actually their vows of membership seriously, then we wouldn’t have a discipleship problem.”
I’d like to address that comment with some follow up thoughts…
First, I should remind readers that in order to make the case for the importance of baptismal vows I had to argue they were at least as important if not more important than our membership vows. By no means do I think we should do away with the vows of membership to the local church. This is not an either/or sort of thing. I’m simply saying that our current culture has not done an adequate job of forming disciples when we’re talking only about what it means to be a member in a local church. Doubling down on a system that’s already proven to yield a low capacity for discipleship doesn’t make sense. Adding an emphasis on baptismal vows as the basis for discipleship only enhances one’s life as a church member.
Secondly, membership vows alone are not enough to form Wesleyan disciples. If we’re honest with ourselves we know that we can be 100% active in our local church through prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness and remain nominally Christian. “Participating in the ministries of the church” is a far cry from the language of Wesleyan holiness. Agreeing to pray, be actively engaged in a local church, give of our financial gifts, and encouraging others to do likewise is not on the same level as renouncing and repenting of sin, accepting the grace to reject evil and injustice, and confessing Jesus as Lord. That doesn’t make membership vows something to scoff at. But it does remind us that are active members of a local church because we are first baptized into God’s mighty acts of salvation. The accountability we hold one another to should include whether or not we participate in the transformative ministries of our local church but it should not end there. Accountable discipleship asks whether or not we’re growing in grace, moving on towards perfection, and becoming more and more holy. Wesleyan disciples are active church members as a result of this journey towards entire sanctification.
This is precisely what it means to “remain faithful members of Christ’s holy Church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world?”
A (Short) Personal Testimony
My daughter was baptized today during our 11:00 worship service. I had the great pleasure of not robing up as a preacher because it was more important I be a dad today. As my wife and I stood next to the font holding our daughter, I thought about the water inside and the precious life in my arms. Our senior pastor asked us — in front of about 350+ members of our local church family — the questions of baptism I wrote above. It occurred to me this was probably the first time since my confirmation that I had renewed my baptismal vows. So there I stood, before God and a full congregation as both pastor and dad, and I tried to answer each question in as best as I could — slowly and intentionally because I was not only answering for myself but also as a promise to raise my daughter likewise.
For me, discipleship must include a continual reminder of these vows of baptism because I refuse to set the bar so low as to let my daughter think that as long as she’s active in a local church everything is okay. I answered those questions knowing that one day she’ll answer them for herself. When that day comes I hope she knows that should not be the last time she hears those questions. Through the ups and downs of her life, I hope those questions echo in her ears just like I hope the waters of her baptism keep her feet a little damp no matter where she goes. If her baptism is to mean anything, it ought to mean that by God’s unfailing grace she’ll live into a life that seeks to model these vows. And in doing so, I hope she knows that also means she must be active and faithful to a local church. But that faithfulness comes out of the fact that on a day she can’t personally remember, her mom and dad stood before a group of folks and declared that, by grace, she would raised as a disciple of Jesus Christ come hell or high water. If even and ounce of that comes true two things will happen: First, she’ll know that grace alone is responsible; and secondly, there will be no question at all over if she’ll be active in a local church — by grace, that will come as a natural result.