Monday, February 25, 2013

Knowing When To Take A Stand

The following is an except, a chapter from my book "100 Year's of Ministry: A Practical Guide for Church Leaders."  A more updated version of this book will be available in June through Greenleaf Publishing.  Since our topic this week at FPC is, "Taking our Stand," this seemed like an appropriate entry.

Your One Big Stand

Jesus answered them, “destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three
days.” (John 2:19)

            Every pastor and church leader eventually arrives at a single moment that defines his/her entire ministry.  This moment, this vote, this sermon, this position, this outreach effort, this act of compassion is literally the emblem of all that the entire ministry stands for.  The moment may not be something that is a popular issue, or that garners accolades or financial benefits.  It may be an issue that only you can articulate your passion for, and that, in matter of fact, nobody else really fully understands or cares about.  It may be a very small thing that requires acute attention and focus, or a very large thing that demands courage and conviction.  The one big moment is different for everyone.  Nevertheless, every pastor and church leader has one big happening that we, in my family, have always referred to as the – “Your One Big Stand.”
            It was the spring of 1968 in Oakland California.  The almond trees were just beginning to sprout pink blossoms around the flanks of the old, coastal, Bay side city just south of San Francisco.  Of course, the spring of1968 was anything but idyllic or peaceful in the rest of the United States.  The summer of  ‘68 was the time President Richard Nixon committed extra troops to the brand new, but burgeoning Vietnam Conflict.  Across the Bay, on the other side of the horizon, Berkeley was in full throws of student riots and conflict.  Police cars and National Guard troops were the regular attention and outlet for the pot-puri of beet-nicks, hippies, counter-cultural revolutionaries, modern day prophets, and folk song revivalists who gathered on college campuses and in the middle of downtown parks.  Around the entire Bay Area, tear-gas suppressed student movements were a regular head-line grabbing occurrence, and there was disaffection for all things institutional: corporate America, western cultural hegemony, organized religion, the federal government, educational elitism, socio-economic and racially motivated defacto segregation.  The only thing missing from this volatile milieu of discontent was a single personality or a persona who would have the dynamic ability to ignite the latent psychological fuels of suppression and rage that hung heavily in the fog-like air.  The stage was set for a massive revolt and rally to be organized.  The stage was set for a dynamic, energetic, anti-establishmentarian sociologist and social scientist from the North Eastern part of the United States named Saul David Alinsky.
            Now, to be clear, Saul Alinsky was an individual of extreme intellect, profound book intelligence and a person who would become a very keen social theorist.  He was once compared in one magazine to being a modern day Thomas Paine, and, “one of the great American leaders of the non-socialist left.” Some have felt that Saul Alinsky was very helpful in the United States in his suggestions that a lot of the social ills committed during the history of the world, and particularly in the 20th century, occurred because of, and in some cases aided by the Christian church.  Saul Alinsky made a large number of great contributions to the social sciences, however, in the spring of 1968, he was also being used by extremist factions in the California establishment, who were in favor of insurrection, destruction and out and out revolt.

            Grandpa was, at that time, the pastor of the Park Boulevard Presbyterian Church of Oakland, California.  Park Boulevard was one of the largest Presbyterian Churches of the Presbytery at that time, though it was not often known for being at the center of politically charged battles or theological debate.  Park Boulevard was the church that people who wanted a “normal” and “balanced” church experience would attend.  The so- called Saul Alinsky debate was about to change all of that.  Because the San Francisco Presbytery had decided to invite Saul Alinsky to speak, and because so many civic leaders in many of the congregations of the San Francisco Presbytery were worried about massive riots occurring from Saul Alinsky’s visit, grandpa decided to preach against the visit.  He decided to use the pulpit of the Park Boulevard Presbyterian Church to make his “One Big Stand.”
            The following Sunday morning, the sermon that was posted on back-lit sign outside of the church, and which was printed on the mimeographed bulletins insider was something like; “Why Saul Alinsky Should Not Speak,” (The exact title of the message has been lost to the ages).  Grandpa had, after much prayer, discernment, and deep Spiritual reflection, decided that trying to prevent Saul Alinsky from speaking would be his “One Big Stand.”  In all honesty, the sermon that grandpa preached was not the most inspiring or uplifting oratorical effort of his ministry.  Nor, really, did many people in the congregation entirely understand why grandpa was engaging himself and the congregation in such politically charged and nationally recognized debate.  After the sermon, some accused grandpa of pandering to petty politics and besmirching the lofty status of the pulpit of God.  Under normal circumstances, grandpa would probably have agreed.  However, such comments and editorials had virtually no effect upon grandpa’s opinion of the effort.  In essence, he knew deep down in his soul that God was convicting him to speak about this particular issue.  In the end, Saul Alinsky did not speak for the San Francisco Presbytery.  And, it is worth noting that riots and revolts were experienced in nearly every other major Bay area city in the late 1960’s which flanked Oakland: Richmond, San Francisco and Berkeley.  Mysteriously and some would say providentially, riots and demonstrations were somehow averted in only one city in the entire area – Oakland.   
            Years later, when asked about his reasons for preaching against Saul Alinsky’s visit, grandpa was still, somehow, unable to articulate exactly why he felt the way he had, or why he was led to focus his congregation’s attention on that particular Sunday on that particular issue.  Grandpa never again engaged with a major political, cultural, social, or cause quite like the Saul Alinsky controversy.  For whatever reason, he felt called by God to take that particular position.  That was his – “One Big Stand.”
            Jesus’ “One Big Stand” was, of course, the cross.  One of the things I love so much about Jesus is that he never allowed smaller issues, other debates, various and sundry distracting causes to become his “One Big Stand.”  In Jesus’ day there were so many other issues which could have been distracting; Jewish political nationalism, Levitical purity, Commitment to the Torah, Roman philosophical thinking.  All of these issues could have pulled Jesus from the main reason that He had come to be with us.  However, from the moment that Jesus was born to the moment of Jesus’death, Jesus knew that his “One Big Stand” would be death on a cross, for all of humanity, for all of eternity.
            Many pastors make the mistake of allowing lots of different issues to become their “One Big Stand.”  And so, like Don Quixote, in the Spanish novel by Cervantes, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, they find themselves chasing up one valley and down the next, flinging themselves every cause that comes along.  In reality, every pastor only has one major opportunity to take one major stand.  Nobody can define for you what your Big Stand will be.  But you must take it, and you will know what you must do, and how you must move forward, when that moment arrives.

All For Now,

Monday, February 18, 2013

High and Wide

Someone recently asked me this question; "Graham, we know that you are an outreach focussed pastor, and that your goal is to help our church become larger, but is it also your goal that our church would become deeper?"  My response was simple, "I sure hope not."  The last thing I would ever want is for someone to call the church that I was pastoring a "deep" church.  My goal has always been that I would be the pastor of a church that is not, "Deep and Wide" (to quote a nursery song we all learned in Sunday school) but rather;

High and Wide

Let me explain.  When I think about the most high calling for any Christ follower, it is quite simply this, the old testament's central life requirement SHEMA (Hear)- "To love the Lord with all of your heart and all of your soul and all your strength and all of your of our mind."  This is a call by God for us to lift our thoughts toward Him, not to sink them into our own lives.  The calling for all Christ followers is to constantly and perpetually lift our thoughts, prayers, minds higher than this world - not deeper into it.

And Wide.  Jesus expounded upon the highest command of God followers, "and the second is like it, to love your neighbor as yourself."  Jesus was reminding his followers (and even his detractors) that the call of Christ is not simply upward, but it is also outward.  And so, we must grow the kingdom, we must grow the number of Christ's followers, we must be

High AND Wide

So, what about depth.  Well, obviously I am having fun with words here, and nomenclature, but depth is often the opposite of what we should strive for.  I have often found, in the Christian experience is a synonym for insularity, inwardness, selfishness, self-absorption, self-focus.  Jesus was never described by his contemporaries as deep.  Quite to the contrary, Jesus was often criticized for being the opposite, "a shirker of the law, a simpleton, an uneducated rural rabbi, a rabble rouser, (a Galilean - "A Red Neck").  When Jesus was crucified on a cross, the Roman authorities thought it would be funny to put a pejorative name above his cross - "Jesus of Nazareth, King of Jews"  (essentially, "Jesus of the sticks, king of the most marginalized people in history"...ha ha).

The apostle Paul would chide those who called him "intelligent" or super Godly.  Paul seemed to be saying that rather than worldly depth, what was required was Spiritual levity and perspective;
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corninthians 1:18)

All For Now,

Monday, February 11, 2013

Knowing When to Call it Quits

Like the rest of the world, I was shocked to wake up this morning and find two new things:  First, there was 6 inches of snow outside my kitchen window.  Second, that the pope, his holy see, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, Benedict XVI, just announced his eminent (one might say his imminent eminent...) resignation as leader of the 1 billion + member church.  This was the first such resignation of a pope since at least the end of the dark ages, and certainly the first resignation from such a position that wasn't motivated by even the slightest tincture of immorality or question.  At first, I must admit, I was a bit wistful of this pope's decision to call it quits.  While Benedict has been criticized by many for his ultra orthodox views on the faith, I for one have found his theological leanings in large part comforting.  After pondering Benedict's resignation all morning, I have come to the conclusion that it is in fact a VERY wise move, and that it serves as a model and an example of the importance of:

Knowing When to Call it Quits

I have a friend who served as a very successful pastor of a relatively large Presbyterian Church.  My friend served in this church upwards of 10 years, and offered the church great leadership, and provided a national platform for all kinds of innovations and reforms.  At a relatively early age, his early 50's my friend announced to his congregation that he has decided to retire, and make room for another pastor.  The congregation were aghast.  How could a person leave his position at such a crucial and critical time of growth and leadership?  "Simple," my friend retorted, "I just feel like it's time to...Call it Quits."

On the completely other hand, I know of a business executive who has been CEO of his corporation for about 20 years.  This businessman's career trajectory models and reflects the recent ups and downs of the stock market.  At the beginning of this person's career, his gains were very high.  And then, the trajectory of growth declined significantly.  For the past 10 years there has been no growth in his corporation at all.  One might argue that this person did not;

Know When to Call it Quits

The Bible is clear about the fact that there is a beginning point for all things and an ending point.  "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven...a time to keep, and a time to throw away" (Ecclesiastes 3:1-6).  Usually the people around us are better at knowing what life stage we are in than we are.  It is usually obvious to everyone but ourselves that our time in a given thing has come to an end.  It is up to us to have the courage and wisdom to discern that moment correctly with God.

All of us will someday reach a juncture in our careers, in our parenting, in a large project that we are taking on that we will need to have wisdom about when to begin and when to end.  When we are not functioning at a level that we would like to, we should know when to call it quits.  When our kids have left home, we reach a juncture of parenting when we need to know when to call that stage of life parenting quits.  When we come to end of a big project, we must have the wisdom to know when to end.

So, here's to Pope Benedict, who has shown the rest of the world that sometimes it is wiser to quit than to keep on going.

All For Now,

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Andy Stanley on Preaching

Ok, I'm sorry that I am writing about preaching for the second week in a row.  For those of you who are non-preachers, it is a bit like an auto mechanic sharing secrets on how he likes to "fix cars" (from the standpoint of the car owner, all you care about is that your car is fixed).  Be that as it may, I just read a FANTASTIC book by Andy Stanley, the pastor of Northpoint Commjnity Church in Atlanta, Georgia entitled; Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend.  Andy has a chapter entitled; "Double-Barrel Preaching".  In it, he talks about how important it is that modern day preachers shed the techniques and tendencies of their forbearers in the faith.

Andy says it better; "The challenge for many of us is that we've inherited approaches to preaching that in many cases conflict with the reason we got into this to begin with....preaching was whatever you saw week after week in the church you grew up in...but You Don't Have the Luxury of Babysitting the Previous Generation's Approach to Doing Ministry.  There's no time for that.  Besides you've only got one life to give to invest in this glorious cause.  So invest it well.  Make the necessary adjustments to your approach." Remember that Andy Stanley's dad is the famous television preacher Charles Stanley, who, it could be argued had a unique and effective style of presenting the gospel in his own generation.  Andy, it could also be argued, has adopted a speaking and leading style that works for his own.

So, I have been thinking about ways that I have tried to shed some of the inherited approaches to preaching that have conflicted with the reason I got into the ministry to begin with.  I don't have a legacy like Andy's in terms the fame of a preaching progenitor, but I do have a legacy of four generations of preaching that I have had to lovingly and hopefully thoughtfully adapt from and move away from to be effective in my own time.  Here is what I have tried to do:

A Conversational Tone:  In the old days, the tone of preaching tended to be top-down, drony, authoritative, "preachy", glib, detached, sanctimonious, and a bit pithy.  This list of adjectives sounds like I am picking on the more traditional style.  Far from it.  In the old days, preachers had to convey the idea that they were the actual oracle of God each weekend.  This was partly due to the context of a world which was literally falling apart (WW II, Economic Depression, Korea, Vietnam, Civil Rights).  Preachers of old would practice their hand gestures in the mirror, making sure they were cupping there hands in exactly the right way.  The tone I have tried to develop is more conversational.  It is hopefully conveying less the sense that, "that preacher guy is perfect!," and conveying more of a sense that, "Well, that guy seems like he is on the journey as I am.  He is imperfect, fallen and doing his best."

A Self-Affacing Style:  In the old days, a congregation wanted to hear how very near to God their pastor was.  The hope was that even though they themselves knew they were far from perfect, that if they hung around a pastor who was better than them, that some of their theological shimmer and perfection might rub off.  So, on Sundays from the pulpit, pastors were accustomed to give their resumes - how many books they have written, what seminaries they attended, what important people they were chumming with, what grades they got in elementary school, how God had spoken to them that very morning, who was in their small group.  This tendency has totally gone in the opposite direction.  People attending church today want to know that their pastor is human, fallen, normal, approachable, just like them...

More Experiential:  As much as younger listeners and worshippers hate to admit it, as much as they want to convey the idea that they are entirely rational and logical in their cause driven efforts, ultimately they are all "suckers for experience."  If you are under 40 in this country (and I can say this cause I am just now 40), you have grown up with color TV's all your life, computers that talk to you, cell phones that have movies on them, theme parks that offer presentations in 4D (sight, sound, depth, and experience), not just 3D (how boring).  And it isn't just young listeners.  My grandma in her 90's watches Fox News every night.  Grandma likes Fox News not for their "Fair and Balanced" coverage per say, but for their sensational graphics and attractive anchor people.  It's the experience that is persuasive even more than the conveyance of news.  Modern church goers expect the same thing, and modern preaching must adapt.

I would love to keep writing this post, but the portable camera baby unit on the desk in front of me is showing me that my 5 month old downstairs needs some attention....

All For Now,