Monthly Archives: June 2008

They’re All Funny!

I’ve noticed something about some of the better-known preachers of our time. They’re all funny! People like Rick Warren, Rob Bell, Andy Stanley, Erwin McManus – these guys will crack their listeners up. They know how to tell a story that is both insightful and entertaining. Listening to them is not only helpful, but it can be a pleasure.

This is a trend that seems to have taken hold. I’ve noticed that my funnier student preachers get much better peer reviews in class. I’ve even heard of preachers taking stand-up comedy courses so as to improve their delivery.

As a communicator, I understand the power of humor. But when did humor become a primary element of powerful preaching? No doubt they had their moments, but I don’t sense that there was a whole lot of humor in the preaching of Charles Spurgeon, D. L. Moody, Billy Graham, or any of the great preachers of previous generations. Even today, there are still some excellent preachers out there who never stoop to tell a joke. Still, coming to church is starting to feel like a night at the Improv.

I imagine this says something about us as a people at the beginning of a new millennium, though I’m not sure what. Are we less serious? Are we more trivial in our interests? Or are we somehow more aware of the incongruities in life? Is more humor in preaching a good or a bad thing?

I’m not ready to make any final comment on this phenomena. Clearly, people enjoy humor and I’ve been known to make use of it myself. If I can help them stay connected with the text and with the sermon by saying something funny or describing something in a witty way that’s great – just so long as the humor doesn’t get in the way of the message or trivialize it in any way. Sometimes humor brings the law of unintended consequences into play.

Humor itself is not what it used to be. The late George Carlin, famous for his “seven words that can’t be said on television,” recently won a Mark Twain award. I’ve no doubt Carlin can be funny, but Mark Twain he was not. The problem with contemporary humor is that it is often so cynical. Humor that gains a laugh by tearing something down or that comes at the expense of another human being, or group of fellow humans has no place in the preacher’s repertoire.

On the other hand, some things in life are just plain funny and if by looking at things from another perspective we can lead our listeners to laugh, this might be a good thing.

Preachers don’t preach so as to get a laugh. Laughter is not our goal. However, if humor can lift a little stress for people and draw them closer to our message, it might be just the thing we need to help our people hear.

So You Don’t Want To Go To Church Anymore

There is a book that has developed something of a cult following among frustrated pastors and bloggers who yearn to be “organic” Christians. It has a controversial title that is guaranteed to stimulate discussion: So You Don’t Want To Go To Church Anymore. Written by Jake Colsen [actually by Wayne Jacobsen and Dave Coleman who created a pseudonym out of their partnership] the book has an indy feel to it. You can download it for free from www.jakecoleman.com/Jakespreads.pdf.
As is becoming common from the emerging church template, the book written as a conversation between an ancient disciple [John] and a modern day believer [Jake] as a way to reexamine the statusquo of Church life. For some, the book is troubling … for other, it is a challenge. In essence, the church as an organization is viewed as guilty for distracting people from the true mission of Jesus. No matter what the nature of the organization – traditional church or house church – each are taken to task for obscuring true spiritual growth with the performance of religious exercises.
No matter what you think about it [and personally, I think that the criticism of Church as an organized body with rituals that create a common voice is simplistic, misguided, and in some cases prejudicial. The fact is, there was a bit more organization and common voice in both the New Testament and the early church than the “relationship based fellowship” presented in the book] … back to my thought, No Matter what reaction you have to the book, the one thing that I do appreciate is the nudge for leaders to engage in a more sincere and deliberate ministry of spiritual formation.
Just one clip from the book:
If church can be this simple, John, how do leaders fit in all of this? Don’t we need elders and pastors and apostles?”
“For what?”
“Doesn’t someone need to be in charge and organize things so people will know what to do?” Marvin was almost beside himself. I cringed inside knowing he wasn’t going to hear what he wanted.
“Why, so people can follow someone else instead of following Jesus? Don’t you see we already have a leader? The church gives Jesus first place in everything and it will refuse to let anyone else crawl up in his seat.”
“So leaders aren’t important either?”
“Not the way you’ve been taught to think of them. One can hardly conceive of body life today without an organization and a leader shaping others with their vision. Some love to lead; others desperately want to be led. This system has made God’s people so passive most can’t even imagine living without a human leader to identify with. Then we wonder why our spirituality falls so painfully short. Read through the New Testament again and you’ll find there is very little focus on anything like leadership as we’ve come to think of it today.”
“But there were elders and apostles and pastors, weren’t there?”
“There were, but they weren’t out front leading people after their personal visions, they were behind the scenes doing exactly what you have on your heart to do, Marvin—helping people to live deeply in Christ so that he can lead them! Elders won’t end up managing machinery, but equipping followers by helping them find a real relationship with the living God. That’s why he asked us to help people become his disciples and why he said that he would build his church. Let’s focus on our task and let him do his.”
And don’t think that non-traditional churches get away with much either.”
It’s a stimulating, sometimes disturbing, read … which raises some poignant questions for any leader. In reading the flurry of blog discussions about the book, one set of questions arose that made the debate worth the trouble:
When I structure things am I facilitating sincere devotion to Christ or am I steering people to perform religious exercises to meet others expectations? Will people come out of this with a greater devotion to Christ and a pure love for others, or will they be motivated by guilt or fear?

Surpassing Righteousness

Christians are called to live above the level of their culture. I’m OK with that. But living unreflectively can be as spiritually unhealthful as enthusiastically endorsing the culture.

Though I’ve had my share of childhood scraps and squabbles, I’ve never as an adult settled a dispute by resort to bloodshed. I feel good that I’m living above the call of the Sixth Commandment, “Do not murder.” and I don’t have to worry about being subject to judgment on that account. But just because I haven’t “whacked” someone, doesn’t mean that I’m in the clear.

Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount that while not committing murder is righteous, it does not equate to the surpassing righteousness which is the hallmark of the heaven-bound (Matthew 5:20). Surpassing righteousness not only will not shed blood, it won’t allow itself to become angry or express resentment to the person who offends. Jesus said, “anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of Hell.” (Matthew 5:22)

If I allow myself to become so upset that I think angry and harmful thoughts toward another (whether I know that person or not) or vent my anger by calling a person stupid, an idiot, or a fool, that is the same as murder.

How can this be? Let me illustrate.

Most of us don’t like dandelions in our lawns or gardens. We go to great lengths to dig them out so that our lawns are clear of their ragged leaves and yellow heads. But it would be a complete nonsense if we were to have such an activist attitude toward the plants and yet be unconcerned or even accommodating towards the tiny seeds from which those weeds grow. Obviously the plants are much bigger and more unsightly; but they have their origin in those tiny airborne seeds. If you are a gardener, shouldn’t you be just as concerned about the seeds as you are about the weeds?

That is exactly what Jesus is getting at. Murder is unrestrained anger. But in his instruction regarding angry thoughts and speech against others, it’s pretty clear that anger is just restrained murder. Murder is the full grown plant; anger is the seed from which it grows. Therefore, anger is just as deadly. Shouldn’t we be just as concerned about the seeds as we are about the plants?

Indeed!

Allowing ourselves to cherish vile thoughts about others when we’re frustrated by them is as wrong as doing them lethal harm. We ought not to do this. But simply refraining from wrong doing, wrong thinking, and wrong speech is largely negative. That is not the full expression of surpassing righteousness, because surpassing righteousness is at the same time positive, exerting restorative energies in relationships.

Jesus declares that surpassing righteousness, far from simply not hurting or maligning others, will be exceedingly anxious to make amends. In fact, it holds priority over worship (Matthew 5:23-24) and coming to one’s perceived rights (Matthew 5:25-26).

God’s interest for us is that we enter into his kingdom and that nothing keeps us from that joy. That calls for surpassing righteousness, which only he by the power of his own Holy Spirit can provide. Surpassing righteousness is interested in both the outside of the call not to murder and the inner dynamics of anger which it also wishes to prevent.

A great comfort that we are heaven bound followers of Jesus is that we wish people well and not ill in what we think of them and what we say to and about them. Far from being angry people, Christians are people concerned to admit when they’ve wronged someone and instant to pursue making amends.

Resolving Intercultural Tensions 4: Law’s “Mutual Invitation”

NOTE: A companion workshop to these articles is available to multi-ethnic churches that provides information, exercises and interaction to encourage the implementation of those disciplines that promote healthy intercultural relationships. Please contact Mark via the form below.

Whose rules rule?

card handIn the innovative cultural simulation game, Barnga, created by Sivasailam Thiagarajan, groups of people play a simple card game without realizing that each person has been given slightly different rules to the game. The participants are not permitted to speak to each other or to communicate by writing. It doesn’t take long before there is some banging on the table and grunts of disgust as the game does not proceed as expected. 1 Because the point of the game is the same for all, one conclusion drawn by the players is that some of the other participants are either cheating or did not properly read the rules.

HPD = High Power Distance LPD = Low Power Distance

Similarly, when people from different cultural backgrounds congregate for discussion or decision making, the overall context can be so familiar that each cultural group believes that their assumed "rules" of interaction will be followed as the norm. When the cultural groups have contrasting low power distance (LPD) versus high power distance (HPD) orientations, the result can be frustrating with the participants misattributing2 the motives of others according to their cultural perspective of what is normative behavior. When someone speaks "out of turn," they are judged as "rude" or "aggressive," rather than recognizing that some people are "playing by different rules." In the first article of this series, the concept of power distance was introduced with illustrations that showed how the contrast between high and low power distance causes tension in intercultural relationships. The second article dealt with leadership dynamics when dealing with high and low power distance cultures. As a means of resolving these tensions, the third article described the important skill of speaking each other’s "language of respect." In this final article in the series, we will explore Eric Law’s innovative method of "mutual invitation"3 as a method of developing productive interaction in order to bridge the power gap between HPD and LPD cultures. READ THE COMPLETE CROSS-CULTURAL IMPACT ARTICLE

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