September 2010

1. Use it!
I would like to think it is unnecessary to encourage pastors to use the Bible in their preaching.  But enough preachers these last few decades have let the Bible fall out of use that it is worth mentioning.  Why wouldn’t pastors be using the Bible?  Perhaps it is because the “how to” sermon is more easily understood and its relevance is more immediately obvious.  The books of the Bible were, after all, first written to someone else and the relevance of Mephibosheth is rarely as clear as a sermon on how to raise your children.

But this is who we are and this is God’s primary place of speaking to us.  The Bible is a sacrament of revelation, where ordinary words, indeed ancient words, become the very word of God to us today.  These are our stories, the family stories we tell during dinner or around a campfire.  They define us.  They give us our sense of direction.  We use them to wrestle with the issues the family is dealing with today.  If we ignore them, we lose our sense of who we are.

2. Remember “The Rules” of Application
There are rules for applying the Bible today, just like there are rules to using language.  We studied the English language in high school and college and sometimes those were hard courses.  It’s much easier to use the rules than to learn them.  The application rules that we as Christians have learned in church are complicated when you take them out and describe them.  But we do follow rules.

Some of these application rules are more valid than others.  Some of them, for example, are denominational rules.  We “know” the text can’t mean something because the rules tell me it can’t.  My traditions tell me what the “naughty verses” are that do not fit so easily into my paradigm and the ones that are my “key verses” and memory verses.  While clearly many of these denominational rules are open to re-examination, these rules sometimes reflect God’s working with particular communities of faith.  God has ministered and led particular faith families through these rules. 

The key is never to split or get into destructive fights over these sorts of things.  There’s nothing wrong with individual Christian traditions having their own unique identities as long as we don’t mistake our group for the true church and don’t become divisive.  Indeed, we can hardly integrate biblical teaching together without making the kinds of choices that denominations represent.  This side of eternity we have to live with some uncertainty to biblical meaning.

But at the core of the rules is pay dirt.  At the same time that Martin Luther was crying, “Scripture only,” he was still interpreting the Bible according to the rules of common Christianity.  These are the core beliefs that God unfolded in the church by the Spirit in the first few centuries after Christ.  A person reading the Bible who doesn’t know these rules is just as likely to start a cult as lead people to hear the word of God.

Another dimension to the rules is a sense of when the Bible’s words are locked up in the ancient world and when they seem to leap off the page in direct relevance to today.  When we read something and think, “Whaaat?” we are often reading something that our spiritual common sense is telling us does not apply directly to today.  Clothing of mixed thread?  Don’t trim the edges of your beard?  Veil yourself while praying?  We know “The Rules” and they steer us in application.

3. There’s always room for reformation.
Balancing the spiritual common sense that the Spirit unfolds is the prophetic voice.  Sometimes our corporate common sense gets off track.  Sometimes our current culture needs to be critiqued.  This sort of critique tends to come from two directions. 

First, it can come from the original meaning of the biblical texts.  These texts did actually mean something when they were first written.  That meaning was a function of how words were used when the books were written.  Recovering the most likely meaning these words had is a science that studies things like grammar, history, and ancient literature.  Few ministers are really competent interpreters of the original meaning.  There is much room for improvement here.  Every once and a while, God sends a Martin Luther along to remind the church where it has let its common sense stray from the fountain of our story and identity.

But reformation can also come from prophets who can sense that we have strayed from basic principles.  Ironically, if one danger is to stop using the biblical text, the opposite danger is to get so close to the text that you forget the big picture.  This is the danger of fundamentalism, the danger of becoming like the Matthean Pharisees who were good at the letter of the Scripture but quite incompetent followers of God.  From time to time God sends prophets to help us see the heart of God once more and apply first principles to new situations.

4. The Spirit does just fine without us.
Perhaps most important is to realize that the Spirit does not need us as preachers.  God is in no hurry, but He gets us where He wants us to go, slowly but surely.  It’s like the person who tells the pastor after the sermon how much it helped them with such and such, but you realize you said nothing of the sort.  So God leads his dear children along.  Misinterpret boldly that the Spirit may come!  Not intentionally, of course, but you will misinterpret the Bible from its original meaning and you will do it often.  Try not to, but recognize that the Spirit will work with your words regardless.

And He doesn’t need an hour to do so.  We have to wonder in our attention deficit age if any sermon over twenty minutes is anything but a preacher enjoying listening to him or herself talk.  The people stopped listening ten minutes ago or more.  Say what God has put on your heart as you have danced with Scripture.  Then let God do the rest.


One time I asked Russ Gunsalus — one of the founding wizards of our new seminary — how he describes himself. He said that he was an ecclesiologist. Although it was a new term for me, I’ve come to appreciate it greatly and use it extensively. I’ve realized that “ecclesiologist” is not just a way of speaking about the peculiarities of Russ Gunsalus–though he certainly is peculiar! Rather, it is way of describing all of us at Wesley Seminary @ IWU, professors and students alike. We are all aspiring ecclesiologists. I’ve come to see that developing ecclesiologists is a core curricular aim of a seminary. The aim of this post is to develop the meaning and significance of this claim.

What does it mean to be an ecclesiologist? At first glance, it simply means an expert in ecclesiology, i.e., the study of the church. But that way of defining it implies a narrowness that couldn’t be further from the truth. An ecclesiologist is one who is competent in the disciplines necessary for reflection on the practice of church leadership. One could be a church leader without also being an ecclesiologist. In fact, each student at Wesley is already at church leader. But by choosing to enroll in seminary they are implicitly asserting that there’s more to ministry that just doing. They are expressing their desire to reflect on what they do–to make sense of the complexities of their practice by questioning it, developing it, expanding it and integrating it. They are stepping out in the hope that such reflection will strengthen, deepen and lengthen their ministries. They aspire to be not only effective but also reflective church leaders.

Now there are all sorts of ministry resources out there, and they can be found at all sorts institutions. What’s unique about a seminary is its commitment to bring academic disciplines to bear on the practice of ministry. Be not afraid of the term “academic.” A seminary is by definition a practical institution of learning. Yet what makes it practical is not its avoidance of academic disciplines, but rather its selection and use of academic disciplines. A seminary’s selection and use of academic disciplines is guided by its calling to develop ecclesiologists.

A seminary curriculum selects the academic disciplines that are necessary for reflection on the practice of church leadership. This includes first and foremost the study of various domains the church’s ministry, i.e., mission, leadership, worship, preaching, formation, care, etc. But it also includes various traditional theological disciplines, i.e., biblical exegesis, church history, systematic theology, etc. Furthermore, it draws on many supporting disciplines, such as sociology, psychology, history, etc. Finally, it must include a disciplined approach to one’s own spiritual formation.

One could make a case for all sorts of disciplines, for any discipline that one might use while reflecting on the life of the church is fair game. And we could argue about the best way to arrange them. For instance, at Wesley we’ve decided to integrate the traditional and supporting disciplines within six core courses organized around practical domains. But which disciplines are included and how they are arranged are matters of secondary concern. The primary concern is the principle of selection: only those disciplines that are necessary for reflecting on the practice of church leadership.

But simply studying the relevant subjects does not an ecclesiologists make. One must use these disciplines in a unique way. An ecclesiologist annexes these various disciplines, transposing them into sub-disciplines of ecclesiology. Although each discipline continues to have its own traditions, texts, norms, and aims, they are bent towards the unifying aim of developing living ecclesiologists. Seminary professors and students must repeatedly ask, “How does this bit of knowledge or that particular skill help us to reflect on the practice of church leadership?” This doesn’t mean that every single thought needs to be immediately useful. But it does mean that every line of inquiry must take place within the loop than runs from church practice to disciplined reflection and back again.

In oder to successfully annex so many disciplines, the ecclesiologist seeks after competency rather than expertise. Of course, the pursuit of expertise is permissible. It just isn’t required of the ecclesiologist, whose expertise is interdisciplinary reflection on church practice. What is not permissible for the aspiring ecclesiologist is to pursue expertise in one discipline at the expense of developing competency in all of the disciplines necessary for reflection on the practice of church leadership. In other words, you can’t say, “I don’t need to study worship because I’m not a worship leader,” or “I’m not into theology cause I’m just a youth pastor,” or “I don’t need to study proclamation cause I’m just here to study the bible,” etc. One does not become a reflective minister without at least a basic competency in the relevant disciplines. An ecclesiologist needn’t have a passion for every relevant discipline. But she must have such a powerful passion for the church that she is willing to acquire whatever knowledge and skills are necessary to aid her reflection on its practices.

When I went to college, the first few weeks people would ask you three questions: What’s your name? Where are you from? and What’s your major? When I went to seminary, the first two questions stayed the same, but the third one no longer applied since there were no majors. So it changed to: What’s your denomination? It used to really bug me that you couldn’t declare a major in seminary. Now I know better. Every seminarian has the same major: ecclesiology. Every seminary professor teaches ecclesiology. We are all aspiring ecclesiologists! And so every course at seminary is a course in ecclesiology! At least this is how we think of it at Wesley Seminary at IWU.

I hope that these thoughts of mine on the aims of a seminary curriculum will serve to make sense of what seminary is and/or ought to be. Making these claims explicit should help both faculty and students stay focused on why we are all here.

Any thoughts?

Research tells us that we remember less than 10% of the unsupported spoken word.  Yet, Sunday after Sunday pastors stand behind pulpits and employ this weakest of communication vehicles.  No wonder few could answer “yes” to the title of this article!

Wouldn’t you like to know that the days you spend in sermon preparation would find a long-term place in your listener’s memory?  Your message can be remembered.

Two Learning Principles
Knowing how people learn is important before we can know how to teach.  The two primary principles by which people learn are redundancy and multi-sensory.

Redundancy means we learn when exposed to a message more than one time.  Multi-sensory means we learn when exposed to a message in more than one way.

Every sermon you deliver should use a variety of communication technologies to achieve multi-sensory redundancy.

Five Memory Tools
Here are five ways to improve your communication and enhance your members’ retention…

Pete Ward, pastor of a church in England that began a successful new worship service for 18-25 year olds, describes their creative use of images:  “With a large white sheet and an LCD projector we achieve spectacular visual effects.  A picture that is twenty feet high has an amazing impact.  We use a software program to create a sequence of pictures that change throughout the service.  Suddenly the visual arts become a responsive, interactive part of our worship.”

An image projector, PowerPoint software, and a remote advance unit should be as common in your worship center as a pulpit and microphone.  When used effectively, visual images will greatly enhance retention.  Use visuals to outline your sermon, illustrate scripture, show church ministries in action, introduce purposeful cartoons.  For additional visual stimuli, include a handout in the bulletin for members to follow along and fill in the blanks.  Rather than just hearing your point, they are now hearing, seeing, and writing it!

Drama can take many forms.  A woman pastor I know delivered a sermon on the woman who touched Jesus’ robe.  But she “preached” the entire message dressed in the garb common to women of that day, and delivered the entire “sermon” in the first person.  She was the woman who had just touched Jesus’ robe!  The congregation was spellbound by the personal recounting of the woman who had been healed by the master.

The most common use of drama is a 3 – 5 minute illustration of a key issue related to the sermon.  The most complimentary role of drama is to illustrate a problem to which the sermon provides the solution.

You may wish to purchase scripts written by professional playwrights. After a few years, however, most churches find that the drama sketches they write themselves are more appropriate for the message they wish to communicate.

Story Telling
Jesus, of course, was a master storyteller.  He knew the indelible place in one’s memory that is created by a simple, well-told story.  “Storytelling creates community,” says Thomas Boomershire.  “People who tell each other stories become friends … and the deeper the meaning of the story, the deeper the relationships that are formed by the story.”

A story is similar to a sermon illustration in that it takes listeners into the realm of their imagination — a powerful and engaging part of the mind.  But a story is not a sermon illustration.  Whereas a good illustration clarifies a point in the sermon, a good story makes a point, and the sermon clarifies it.  Think about Jesus’ parables.  Were they illustrations or stories?  Jesus knew the powerful message stories could tell, and the powerful emotions they could evoke. 

Story-telling is a skill that can be developed.  I recently received a notice from the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling (NAPPS, P.O. Box 309, Jonesborough, TN  37659) inviting me to this year’s National Storytelling Festival.  There I could hear and learn to tell ghost stories, family stories, sacred stories, historic and cultural stories.  I could receive a bi-monthly magazine with “how to” articles, stories to use and adapt, and where to find networks of other storytellers.

Storytelling is fun, engaging, spontaneous, and playful.  To say, “let me tell you a story” is like saying, “let’s go play.”  Everyone loves a good story.

Jim Tippens, pastor of First Baptist Church (Myrtle Beach, SC) still remembers what happened in the middle of the service some years ago:  “Suddenly, coming up from behind a railing, the congregation saw an orange head with a green nose and blue hair.  It had the high voice of a child.  Every eye in the sanctuary focused on this amazing sight.  As the creature began to talk, the congregation became silent.  Smiles broke out on people’s faces, I could tell that every word was being soaked up.”

Puppets capture the imagination and childlike innocence in everyone.  Puppets can personalize and communicate with people in a way humans can not.  Whereas, people are often judged on their appearance, their manner, or their body language, puppets are immediately accepted.  Puppets can easily get the attention of sleepy headed children and talkative adults.  Puppets can teach moral and spiritual lessons in ways that no human can.  Creatively integrated into your message, these miniature marvels can make your message stick like glue!

Good preachers know that when they tell the true story of a changed life, it can have a dramatic impact on the listener.  But great preachers know that when someone tells their own story, the impact is often far greater.  The power of a personal testimony is awesome.

A pastor friend recently preached a sermon on why bad things happen to good people.  He had asked a member of the church to consider his feelings on what life had been like in the last year since being diagnosed with cancer.  On Sunday, during his sermon, the pastor invited the man to join him at the front of the sanctuary for a candid conversation on this topic.  The man’s clear and heart-felt testimony made the sermon sing with reality. 

Remember that unsupported spoken words are the least effective carrier of your message.  Enhance your message with multi-sensory redundancy and you will find far more people answering  “yes” to the question: “Remember the pastor’s message three weeks ago?”

In cooperation with the undergraduate School of Theology and Ministry, Wesley Seminary at IWU will be hosting the Fall Theological Research Seminar on Monday afternoons from 3:30-5:00pm.  We will meet in CM122 in the Noggle Christian Ministries building.  Visitors are welcome.

The purpose of the seminar this year is to promote scholarship among faculty of the seminary and university in the areas of biblical studies, theological studies, and Christian historical studies.  We will see if it grows into a catalyst for masters degrees in some or all of these areas. 

The Fall schedule as it currently stands is:

13 – Ken Schenck: “Otherworldly Afterlife without Resurrection”
20 – Steve Lennox, “Disability in Ancient Egypt”
27 – Chris Bounds, “Grace in the Apostolic Fathers”

4 – John Drury, “The Resurrected God”
11 – Brian Bernius on Philistines
18 – Steve Lennox, “Galatians 3:28 and the American Holiness Movement”
25 – Bart Bruehler: “Finding a Home for Zacchaeus: Archaeology and Imagination in the Interpretation of the Gospels”

1 – Ken Schenck, “Resurrection to Otherworldly Afterlife”
8 – Amy Peeler on Hebrews
15 – Russ Gunsalus on women in ministry in 20th century American Christianity
29 – TBA

6 – Elaine Bernius on Old Testament topic

In 2009 God surprised me.  Not the first time, probably not the last time, but it was a big time surprise.

As a student at Marion College (now IWU) I heard Dr. Laurel Buckingham, longtime pastor of Muncton Wesleyan Church, give this challenge to ministry majors – “Pray that God will call you to a community where you could spend a lifetime.”  That really spoke to me, I prayed the prayer, and sensed I was called to Kentwood (a suburb of Grand Rapids, Michigan) to plant a church I would serve for a lifetime.

In 2009 I was 30 years into that calling, and had plans through 2020 and beyond.  I made no secret of my conviction that “local church ministry is the front lines of Kingdom expansion” or as Hybels puts it more compellingly “the local church is the hope of the world.”  Denominational or educational service was important, but secondary.  And I was as energized as ever by the local church I served and the community we were serving.  I was exhilarated by the church planting we were doing (playing a part in the establishing of the hip hop “The Edge Urban Fellowship” was a blast), and our journey to becoming multiethnic (reflecting our city and heaven) was really picking up steam.

Then God clearly indicated to me, “you’re being released.”  How that all unfolded may be a story for a future blog contribution, but I was caught completely off-guard.  Though we had a succession plan in place, up to that point it had been just theory and not something I suspected we’d use anytime soon.  Surprise!

At first I felt like I was in no-man’s land, or as I later described it on an “Abrahamic Adventure” – between the GO and WILL SHOW (Genesis 12:1) there was a DON’T KNOW (Hebrews 11:8).  I knew my time in Kentwood was over, but unsure of what might be next.  Then I was invited to interview to be Vice-President of Wesley Seminary at IWU, and entered the dilemma of participating in an exciting Kingdom endeavor that wasn’t local church ministry.

I’ll never forget a conversation with Dr. Henry Smith, President of IWU.  I said to him, “You realize I don’t have one day of experience in academic administration, that I have ONLY been a local church pastor.”  He paused, then said, “Exactly.”  He paused again, then went on to say that their choice of a local church pastor for leadership at the Seminary was very deliberate, because they wanted it to be a practice-oriented seminary serving ministry leaders, especially those in the local church.  Subsequent conversations and significant times of prayer confirmed my new assignment from God.

So eight months into this new assignment I’m frequently asked, “Are you enjoying it?”  It’s a question I’ve answered in different ways, including…

…the unique vision of Wesley Seminary is invigorating!  This role is giving me an opportunity to use my spiritual gifts, to express my passion for equipping others for ministry and to build on experiences in local church life (church planting, multiethnic ministry, balanced life for sustainability, raising up leaders, etc.) for the benefit of students we seek to serve.

…I’m still convinced the local church is the front lines, so some days it feels like I’m one step removed from where the action is.  I’m also convinced the value of the Seminary is what we do in support of local church.

But most lately, after digging around in Ephesians, I think “are you enjoying it?” is the wrong question.  Not that the motive is wrong – its most often asked by people who are genuinely interested in my well-being and it is a way of wishing me the best.  But the question is not good for me, because it makes ME the center – my feelings, my fulfillment.

The question is not “am I enjoying it?” but “is GOD enjoying it?”  Am I participating in “the mystery of His will according to His good pleasure” (1:9)?  Is my service putting a smile on the face of the One who “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of His will” (1:11)?

That’s where the peace comes.  I sense I’m where God wants me, engaged in a Kingdom-worthy endeavor that gives glory to Him.  I believe God is enjoying it…and I share in His joy.