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Posts Tagged ‘Pulpit’

I meet regularly with a number of friends involved in some sort of ministry. Some of them are in full-time ministry and some in volunteer places. Everyone of them have a passion to winsomely bring people to a relationship with Jesus Christ and help them grow in their spiritual journey.

One of the challenges is that what reached people a few years ago does not touch them today. Our culture has quickly changed and continues rapidly changing, much of it fueled and fed by technology. Technology has shaped how we receive and process information. While much of the church still depends upon a “talking head” at the front of the auditorium, much of the world has moved on to multi-media entertainment centers.

Mount Adams, Washington State, Fall 2012Influence and information does not just come through technological sources, however. Now, it is taken in through personal encounters in one’s “tribal” or affinity group. The breakdown of the family structures and the displacement of family members across distances has caused people to seek out social groups with  which they identify. These play a huge part in filtering information and what is accepted as “truth” among its members. It begins as young as teenagers when they divide into Goths, Emos, Nerds, Jocks, Barbies, Preppies, Punkers, Rockers, Stoners, and Gamers. The list goes on to reflect neighborhoods, ethnic groups and social statuses.

The technolization and tribalization of our culture has created a fractured environment to share the Bible’s message of hope and redemption. This is the “new reality” that American churches face. The question is whether they will be able to quickly adapt to the changing environment or continue to perform old practices that reached bygone eras.

There is a danger in not fighting against the nostalgia of the “good old days.” It is that we miss what opportunities are given to us right now. We can celebrate the past, even grieve its passing, but we cannot be stuck in it if we hope to maintain any missional edge that keeps us relevant and able to relate to the culture we live in today. So, what does this mean – this “new reality” – for American churches?

First, it means we need to rethink our priorities. What is our “kingdom priority”? Is it to preserve our furniture? Is it to maintain our liturgical practices? Is it to shore up programs and ministries? Or, is it to carry a message to spiritually lost people and develop within them hearts and minds that seek after Christ and his kingdom?

As I have talked this dilemma over with ministry friends, one thing has become clear to all of us. The mission is the message of Christ and his lordship or rule. Church history shows us that methods have constantly changed over the centuries. The only difference now is that these  are needing to take place at a faster pace than ever before.

Mount Hood, Oregon, Fall 2012For instance, take the structure of church buildings. The church began with no properties – meeting in the homes of believers and seekers. Finally, when buildings were able to be constructed, they were gathering places for many “home churches.” Finally, these buildings became larger Cathedrals and the focus of the faith community.

Initially, the focus of the building’s interior was “The Lord’s Table“. Any pulpit or podium was to the side, not center stage. Sometimes it was intentionally placed high so that the preacher seemed to be ascending Mt. Sinai to deliver God’s Word to the people once more. Everything centered around the Eucharist.

When the Reformation arrived, it invited new models for church buildings. Some had art, some didn’t and some boasted fancy architecture and some simple. The Word of God became central and slowly the pulpit moved to center stage. The Communion Table remained either in front or behind the pulpit depending upon the prominence a church might give to it (Was there real substance in the food or only symbolism?). As scholasticism played a larger role in Christian education, teaching in preaching became more pronounced. The speaker/preacher/teacher became more important.

With the arrival of Evangelicalism and the Revival movements of the 19th century, churches took on the role of being auditoriums – places to hear a speaker. With the ever increasing role of music in the church, choir lofts, organ machines and pipes all played a role in shaping church buildings and affected how the Gospel message was communicated.

Now, today, in most Evangelical churches, the pulpit has given way to a lectern, music stand, or no prop at all. The worship band instruments are as prominently displayed as the pulpit or Lord’s Table once was a few decades ago. Clergy wigs, clerical collars, robes and suits and ties have given way to button-up shirts and slacks or T-shirts and jeans.

Change. The church has faced it for centuries. How the church today faces the changing reality of its culture will determine how effective it will remain. Sadly, like many church movements in the past, there may be a few today that will need to pass from the scene and become a memory of church history. Many individual churches and denominations will not be able to make the transition toward effectiveness in reaching today’s and tomorrow’s culture.

So, the question every minister, ministry and church organization must carefully assess is what is the main priority? What is “mission critical”? Something that is “mission critical” is absolutely necessary for the success of the mission. Without it the mission would fail. (This is assuming, of course, the centrality of Christ and a deep dependence upon the powerful working of the Holy Spirit.)

I don’t think there is one easy answer to that question. I strongly believe it will depend upon each congregation and each church leader to answer it depending upon their sense of God-given purpose and ministry context.

  • Where are they placed in their community?
  • Who has God given them to reach?
  • What resources has the Lord supplied them to accomplish it?
  • What “gifts and talents” are in its core leadership?

Finally, it means we will also need to re-examine our message delivery system. The message cannot change. Across every culture and every human age, the Gospel remains relevant and unchangeable. However, how it is communicated can change and must.

The new reality in our American churches is that we are facing an ever-increasing biblically illiterate audience despite the preponderance of biblical, theological and spiritual devotional resources available in our society. Many identify this as one of the signs that America has entered a “post-Christian” cultural phase. That may be true. However, that does not give us permission to throw-up our hands in defeat.

I believe that our culture is reverting to a story telling culture. Listeners are less linear in their thinking and how they relate to information. So, handing out and delivering an outline will not effectively reach them. However, story telling will communicate to them. This is a great advantage to the church since our source material, the Bible, is full of stories. Our lead-teacher, Jesus, used story to communicate important kingdom truths.

The danger becomes when our story telling only concludes with moralisms and pop-psychology. Too many of our White Mountain Flowers Flowing Down Rockspulpits and churches have already reverted to this diluted version of the Gospel. The Bible’s stories were given to us for more than to just teach us moral tales or to help us become better humans through positive living and thinking. They are pictures of the cosmic clash between divine righteous wisdom and human moral depravity.

The question remains, how do we most effectively tell this story of human failure and loving divine redemption? I believe that long educational sermons full to pretentious vocabulary is not going to cut it. We are going to need to simplify it – shoot for a 5th or 6th grade vocabulary. When it is necessary to use “big theological words”, then carefully define them. Scholasticism is out. Tribal narratives are the way in. Engage the individuals in the group as well as the whole group in telling the story of God’s glory.

I also believe that we have to begin our message delivery system with the assumption that people do not know anything about the Bible, its stories or is truths for living in God’s world God’s way. At least, whatever they have heard  up to this time is false and misleading. From that starting point, we can begin to shape our message to shape the hearts and minds of our audience.

The delivery system will need to have much more variety. A lone “talking head” delivering information will not capture the attention or the heart of today’s seekers. Contemporary audiences are used to sound bites, short episodic delivery,  and a chance to interact. This changes completely how we view our audience and our message.

Without changing our message, it will require harder work to include a variety of methods to deliver it. This could be everything from video clips, to personal stories, personal response times, discussion time, Q & A’s, as well as team speaker/teachers/preachers. What may seem like a chaotic and disjointed delivery system will make much more sense and have much more meaning to today’s audience.

The new reality in American churches offers an opportunity for the church to stretch out of its old wineskins and see what God is doing in his world and how he is at work. None of this has caught him by surprise. He is not overcome with questions and doubts about the future. He already saw this moment in time and had a “new wineskin” strategy for it. It is our job to discover it, embrace it and go with it.

©Ron Almberg/Weatherstone   March, 12 2012

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It is not just a slip of the tongue that can catch a preacher in an embarrassing moment. Sometimes the slip of the shoe will too.  There is nothing like a brand new pair of leather soled dress shoes and carpeted sanctuary floors to better illustrate this point.

I wish that I could tell you that this is a brief story about a friend of mine. But, alas, it is not.  I must own up to my own humiliating debacles.  And this is one of them.

I had just taken a youth and associate pastoral position at Neighborhood Christian Center in Bremerton, Washington. So, right out of college, my wife and I moved to Bremerton to make a new home and start an adventure in ministry.  Of course, like any wet-behind-the-ears rookie of any occupation, I was intent on proving my worth to not only the senior pastor, Jim Hill, but also the whole congregation.

As those in any level of church leadership know, Sunday mornings are a frantic and frenetic time. I have grown certain over the years that pre-service preparation is when the devil and his minions show up for church.  Thus, we would probably do better going around praying and exorcising demons from every room and off of every person coming through the doors than getting ready for our religious rites.  But, of course, we are always too busy to do just that.  So, we scurry around like blind church mice trying to find cheese.

On this particular Sunday, I was prepared and ready to go minutes before the start of the morning worship. There were a few little details I needed to take care of with some individuals in the back of the church.  So, I made my way to them to talk.  Meanwhile, the sanctuary continued to fill up.  It was going to be a full church that particular morning, which is always gratifying to all those who have prepared so hard.

The senior pastor led worship from the piano. It was my duty to welcome everyone and give the invocation; the opening prayer for those of you not from the Pentecostal “High Church” tradition.  I must have taken a little longer than I thought with the individuals I was talking to for before I knew it the cue to begin started.  This meant I was out of place in the back of the church and not in the front of the church where I belonged.

Hurrying quickly, I decided to take a short cut up the platform by jumping on to the stage from the side where there were no steps but quick access right to the pulpit. Now, I was more athletic than I am now and quite able to jump high.  In college I could dunk a basketball with two hands.  Thus, leaping the two-and-a-half feet up onto the stage posed no problem in my mind.  Except…

That week, in anticipation for my new position on a pastoral staff, I had gone out with my wife to the mall to purchase a new pair of dress shoes. I had purchased on sale a very nice pair of Florsheim dress shoes.  They had 100% leather uppers and soles.  They were very comfortable.  It was those shoes that I was wearing when I decided to take my leap-of-faith from stage-right.

As I recall, my take-off was impeccable. I had the length and the height just right.  What I had not calculated was the reaction of my new leather soled shoes to the carpeted edge of the platform.  I may as well have been wearing polished Formica soled shoes.

My shoe slipped off of the stage. My body continued in its forward projection.  Shin came crashing into the edge of the stage.  The rest of my body came crashing to the floor.  Unfortunately, the platform was also tastefully decorated with potted plants.  Real ones.  These helped to break my fall.  My fall helped to scatter the pots, the plants, and the soil across the platform.

Franklin Country Court House, Pasco, Washington, August 2010

Franklin Country Court House, Pasco, Washington, August 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

It is amazing how quite a crowded room gets when something like this happens to someone. For a brief moment, all time stood still.  It was as if everyone was waiting to see if my body would lie in a still heap or give signs of life by continuing to move.  After s brief registry of just what happened, several people moved to see if I was alright and help me up.  Of course, wanting to quickly recover I had tried to bounce up from my prostrate condition only to kick around the remains the flowers and potting soil.

The senior pastor look at me bewildered. I looked at him befuddled.  Already ushers were helping to pick up the dismounted potted plants.  Some church ladies were gingerly scraping potting soil into little piles and scooping it into a few pots.  I hardly new how to begin.

How do you recover from such a publicly humiliating beginning? For some people that morning, it was there first introduction to the “new pastor”.  I can only imagine what they must have been thinking.  For those who had a direct hand in my hiring, including the senior pastor, I imagine that someone wanted to get up and apologize to everyone else for my being there.

Somehow, my composure and the congregation’s composure were restored and we continued on that morning. I do not remember any thing else of that day.  The singular event, however, is pretty much burned into the synapses of my brain.  Needless to say, I spent a good deal of time scuffing up the soles of my dress shoes on the sidewalk after that morning.  My shin would heal, my pride would mend and most people would forget it ever happened.  But not me.  I still shudder when I remember that episode.

I think everyone has a similar story of public humiliation to share. It is part of human experience.  It is a tool to keep us humble.  I imagine that there are days that God as an audience to our behaviors call his angels to his side and says, “Hey, everyone!  There a newbie trying something out.  Let’s see what happens.”  Isn’t it good to know that one of the ways we can bring pleasure to God is by providing comedic relief?  I think one of the largest books in the library in heaven has got to be entitle, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Pulpit.”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Human Saints

I am continually amazed at how human characters in the Bible are portrayed. One would think that if you were going to write a “holy book” espousing the virtues of a god that all your main characters in that book would be stellar examples of faith and righteousness.  What we have in the Bible, instead, is a parade of characters who are fallible, unstable, unreliable and often very poor examples for others to follow.

From Sunday School to the preacher’s pulpit, however, we usually ‘cherry pick’ the positive stories of Scripture. We like to highlight all the successes in the “good” characters of the Bible.  We then juxtapose them against the failures of the evil characters.  I have come to think that this not only does a disservice to the Bible and its message but also to its followers.  The stories of all the individuals are a mixed bag of failures and successes.  All of them are complex human beings placed in complicated life situations.  In some situations, they handle themselves well; in others, not so much.

Growing up on Sunday School lessons, David in the Old Testament was always portrayed as a hero and someone to emulate. However, a careful examination of his life as an adult reveals that even though he is called “a man after God’s heart,” he is a deeply flawed individual who on more than one occasion failed God, his family and his Kingdom.  The legacy left by him through his children and grandchildren is dismal.  By today’s standards he would be an absentee father and a failure as a parent.

In the New Testament, many of the disciples of Christ failed to get his message or understand his mission. Peter’s leadership in the early church was marked by duplicity and was called out by Paul.  Paul was known for his anger and early on alienated a young protégé and close friend in ministry.  Most of the first churches were marked with strife and doctrinal errors; so much so that all the New Testament letters contain some kind of correction if not out right rebuke.

Few Biblical characters get away with a spotless image aside from Jesus, the son of God. And perhaps that is just the point.  No one is perfect:  not any one.  Only one came to live on earth who could do so perfectly before God and man.  That person was Jesus the Messiah.

So, rather than holding up paragons of perfection, the wise author of the Bible through divinely inspiring human writers went ahead and told stories that reveal the best of human qualities along side the worst. This should encourage us all, I think.  It reveals that God knows human nature and is not afraid of dealing with its messiness.  It gives us hope that if God can work in and through the lives of such imperfect humans then perhaps he can do so in our lives too.

Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009

Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Instead of examining the Bible for perfect characters to model, perhaps we should be looking for imperfect human models who inspire us to believe that God is able to work in the world and in us despite our worst qualities. I think this approach is more healthy.  It gives a much greater image of God grace, mercy and goodness.  It also magnifies the work and power of God in us.  Instead of our message being about us and how we can make God look good and help him, our message simply becomes about how great God is despite us.  God gets all the glory because we cannot add anything to him or his story.

God must be pretty secure in himself to allow the written testament of his acts throughout history to include some of the biggest failures named as his followers. Most any other book of heroes would edit out those kinds of stories.  Yet, here record for us all to read and study is a raw history of human successes and failure despite God’s best efforts.  It shows us that he did design the crown of his creation to be mere puppets or robots but agents with a free will to make their own choices.  The fact that God continues to work amidst all this mess reveals the depth of love and care for his creation.  It means that, in the end, we are all saints in his eyes – very human saints.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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This is a re-post of thoughts about worship that I had posted to my Facebook page this last summer (06-07-09).  I was going through old files on my computer and came across this again.  It  struck me as still so very appropriate for my life.  Before deleting it off my files, I thought I would post it here.

Unexpected things may over take you when gathered in worship of  the resurrected Messiah Jesus.  It does not happen often but, when the unexpected happens in the midst what is regularly expected and routine, a person cannot help but feeling that God revealed something special.  That is something of what happened to me this past Sunday.

Now, I have had opportunity to lead church services – more than I can number.  In fact, for the past several years, it has been a rare thing for me to be just a part of the congregation.  Lately, however, my worship experience has been as a non-leader, giving me an appreciation of the “other side of the pulpit”.  I sing amidst the congregation now.  I admit that I’m enjoying the freedom from always having the “leaders hat” on.

There, however, is a draw back from not having to lead week in and week out.  Duty supersedes attitude and feelings for the leader who models worship of God to the congregation.  As such, a positive reinforcement of worship because of leadership position is placed upon the worship leader.  In other words, I’ve come to realize that the position of leading and “performing” worship for others is good.

The tricky part is the expectation of pastors and worship leaders to think that the average person in the congregation will have the same sense of duty.  We spuriously expect everyone to have the same commitment and service towards worshipping God – week in and week out.  In fact, without the restraint of a leadership role, I’ve noticed that my attitude and service of worship can be lacking from one week to the next.

This past Sunday was a particularly “down” day in my worship performance.  The worship team at my church was doing a wonderful job.  Extremely talented, their love for God shines through their voices, instruments, and raised hands.  So, the fault was not with the choice of songs, bad instrumentation, or distracting performance.  I take the blame – 100%.  I was just in a spiritual funk.  Then the Lord gently shook me in two ways.

First was the young man next to me.  He is a developmentally disabled young adult.  He is a definition of kinetic energy with his constant jerks and twitches.  During the greeting time, he turned to me and loudly said, “Hi!  Good to see ya’!”  And, before I could return a kind, “Good morning!”, he was already turned around and greeting other people with the same brevity.  I smiled.  It was probably more of a condescending grin that offered some pity for the poor young man who lacked acceptable social graces.

We were returned to our places with music and invited to stand for singing worship to our Lord and Savior.  The typical high-energy first song rang out.  Somehow, it just didn’t capture my attention or heart.  I sang the song.  But the words tumbled out of my mouth hollow and lifeless.  Something was missing.  Nevertheless, I continued standing and following along with the rest of the congregation.  It is what we do after all.

Rarely in a contemporary worship service is a song sung just once through.  Our worship team played the bridge and we started a second time into the song.  It was at that moment that my pew neighbor broke out with enthusiasm in song.  Mind you, he cannot carry a tune; at least that I heard.  Yet, at the top of his lungs and with both hands shot into the air he sang worship to God.  He was giving it his all, to say the least.

Our worship team continued on with their next songs.  My friend, accept for regular moments of distraction and uncontrolled movement, lifted his hands into the air with others.  He sang with all his heart.  I’m sure that more finely tuned musical ears around me thought the sound was painful.  For me, it was convicting.

A developmentally challenged young man, for whom a moment before I pompously felt pity, schooled me in worship.  He wasn’t leading, but he was following.  And he did it with all his heart, all his strength, and all his mind.  I could not muster as much.

It was then that the Lord shook me the first time and said, “That young man loves me – a LOT.  How much do you love me?  What will you bring me to show your love?  What sacrifice do you have to give in worship?”  I was humbled.  I began to follow the example of my young personal worship trainer sent from the Lord next to me.  In that moment, I understood that in the Kingdom of God, he was the whole one.  I was the spiritually developmentally disabled one.  I stirred my own heart in worship to God.

Towards the end of our worship time, I felt renewed.  I sensed the presence of the Lord and his great love.  Our pastor came to the front to lead us into Communion – the Lord’s Supper.  He gave instructions and the invitation to receive the bread and juice.

Moss and Fungus on Tree, Walhalla, North Dakota, October 2004

Moss and Fungus on Tree, Walhalla, North Dakota, October 2004 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

In our church, the congregants come forward to receive communion.  The communion servers work in teams; often as husbands and wives, but not always.  The first communion server breaks off a piece of bread and hands it to the worshipper saying, “This is Christ’s body broken for you.”  Then, the second server holds out the cup for the worshipper to dip the bread into the juice saying, “This is Christ’s blood shed for you.”  The worshipper then eats the juice soaked piece of bread and returns to his or her seat.

It is not unusual to see emotions shared during communion.  So many people receiving it once again experience the grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love of God.  It can be overpowering.  It often moves more than one person to tears.

However, on this occasion, I could not but help noticing one of the servers.  She could not stop weeping as she broke off tiny pieces of bread and said, “This is Christ’s body broken for you”.  “This is Christ’s body broken for you.”  Over and over again.  Worshipper after worshipper.  The tears flowed as she broke the bread.  She understood the significance of the simple act she was going through – person after person.

It was then that the Lord shook me the second time and pointed out, “That daughter of mine understands the cost of this supper.  Because of that, she loves me – a LOT!  Do you love me that much?  How will you show me that you love me?  How thankful are you for what I have done for you?”  Once again, humbled by the example before me and the Lord’s gentle prodding, I was reminded that what I bring to worship the Lord is as important when I’m following the leader as when I’m leading the followers.

Both worship and communion were served fresh and made new to me this past Sunday.  I am thankful the Lord shook me awake so I didn’t miss any of it.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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