(Hello! If you’ve been reading my blog mainly for X Factor, radio or similar bits, I’m thinking the spiritual interjections like this might be unexpected. With best blogging practice in mind – focusing to grow a reputation and an audience – this might be better in a separate blog, But to be honest, I’m writing this to express things I’m thinking about rather than things to impress readers. So I hope you forgive me if this seems a bit random. There’ll be more like it to come, but I’ll continue tagging posts so you can follow the topics which interest you. Thanks for reading!)
I’ve been reading “Multipliers” by Liz Wiseman, a useful and challenging book about the differences between leading people in a way which shows how clever you are, and leading people in a way which gets the best out of them. I want to do less of the former, more of the latter. It’s clearly ideal for a leader to unleash a dozen (or a thousand) people’s potential, yet it is surprisingly tempting for clever people in leadership roles to prioritise the establishment of their own authority and recognition of their genius, and all too easy for this to end up stifling others’ potential. A clever leader may not even see this happening. But a great leader will put the work in to make sure it does not.
I found myself getting distracted while reading. I’m keen to put the core ideas into practice, and trying to imagine the situations where this can happen. In some, I need to behave differently. In others, I think we need a change of culture, new and higher expectations of each other, and perhaps new structures for our meetings together which enable people to participate more fully.
In church, for example, Sunday meetings have a structure. This varies across different styles of church, and I have more experience in some than others, but I’ve seen a bit of a range. The central focus, the reason for being together, is normally worship – our expression of love to a God who loved us first and loves us most, who even supplies all the love and inspiration we need, but asks for that to become visible and audible in us. In worship we connect with God, we bond with each other as we do this together, and we express visible qualities of an invisible God to anyone else in the world who may be watching. All of this should end up being a personal and corporate growth experience – a fresh touch from God who wants us to call him Father – but worship is not primarily about us or for us. It’s for God. This is incredible in theory, and amazing in reality. If you’ve not experienced it, look for somewhere that practises it, and see if it changes your mind about God.
There are normally other things mixed into a church’s Sunday meeting structure. There’ll be some business to announce while everyone is there and paying attention, “the notices”, which might be a list of stuff read out, or a newsletter, or if you’re at Hillsong, a whizzy video produced impressively in super widescreen, Often these will be about life and ongoing worship together. There’ll be a collection to pay for the costs of church, and most churches will make it clear that this is also a part of worship – it’s another expression of love and thankfulness. The structure and mechanisms vary (from informal plate passing to high expectation bucket patrols) but it’s all clearly in need of a worshipful response.
Then, at some point, there will be teaching. A church leader or special guest will take a position at the front of the crowd, ask for order, and then start sharing wisdom. This is the bit which intrigues me. In the church where I grew up, it would never be longer than ten minutes. People would start checking their watches after five, and tutting after six. If the sighing and shuffling didn’t put the speaker off after seven or eight minutes, the sound of prams wheeling and doors slamming would deliver a pretty strong hint at the ten minute mark. I later joined churches with far bigger appetites for preaching, and looked back on this bite-sized word culture as deeply unspiritual, but I think God has challenged my view of that lately. The people I grew up with loved God, worship and community. They sent their children for six to fourteen years of church education. They placed a massive value on spiritual learning, but expected worship to flow on a Sunday. I’m not sure the resistance to change was entirely healthy, but the love of God and desire to be in community with God’s people were real.
For the last fifteen years or so, I’ve been part of evangelical Anglican churches – ones which place a high value on learning and applying the Bible to life, and which generally reflect this desire on a Sunday with talks which last from between 30 and 60 minutes. This format goes back a long way. Lengthy speeches were actually quite popular in the Victorian times when the pews went in. There is evidence much further back, in the New Testament, that teaching sessions could go on for a really long time. My favourite example is when Paul taught for so long that Eutychus, sitting on a window sill, fell asleep, fell out the window and died when he hit the ground. Thankfully people had the faith to pray for his revival, they enjoyed communion together, and then carried on until dawn. An hour seems pretty short in that context.
But how do you hold someone’s attention for an hour? In our multichannel age, when so many media messages are tightly shaped to fit short attention spans, is it surprising that people’s attention can drift during a long sermon? Of course speakers never want this to happen, and there is no reason why it has to. Well crafted, relevant messages, stories, engaging challenges and genuine connections with the exciting things God is doing somewhere can certainly hold attention for as long as a standard TV documentary. Teach as well as Jesus did, and people will give their attention for days and longer.
What I’m wondering is whether clever teachers (possibly myself included) actually make this harder than it needs to be. We know we’re not there to focus on ourselves and our cleverness. We know the job of sharing truths about God should be part of our worship of God. But I’m thinking that the sermon form itself, if it demands talking from one person and only listening from everyone else, looks like the perfect platform for the least helpful behaviours of clever leaders. One way communication is not a good format for ‘multiplier’ leaders to get the best from their teams. So should we be looking to change the format? If so, how?
One answer to this is ‘workshopping’ – using some of the time for discussion and practical work in smaller groups, and expecting creative input and commitment from individuals. This is good stuff, but it might be a long way from what’s expected (and helpful) in a Sunday worship gathering. I’m thinking we’re wise to keep the focus on God and worship throughout, and have other times where our personal development might be the central focus. When we commit ourselves to grow and serve God, that is part of our worship, so there is a link, but I’m also thinking that for someone expecting simply to meet with God, be inspired and learn something, regular workshopping might be a bit try-hard and offputting.
I’m thinking more about expecting a basic level of response during teaching. If a speaker is pointing people to God, and people are recognising and connecting with this, isn’t worship a natural response? Doesn’t that fit pretty neatly with everything else people are gathered to do on a Sunday? That response might be pretty simple – many churches encourage “Amen!” (meaning “we agree!”) and “Hallelujah!” (meaning “praise God!”), and even demand those responses during a talk. Why not encourage that, or even English words(!), as we expect and encourage people to listen and respond actively? (My wife Helen walked in a few minutes ago, saw the title of this post and responded “Because it’d be really annoying” – which I guess might be fair enough…)
To be honest, I don’t think raising the noise and chatter level would make a big difference by itself.
The real inspiration is in the way Jesus, and those who followed him, taught truth with love and grace, always ready to respond to people’s needs, and in a way which seemed inseparable from praise and worship. Jesus had a speaking engagement which was so packed, the house filled up to bursting point. But someone needed healing from paralysis, so his friends cut a hole in the roof and lowered him down. Can you imagine that happening in church? Apart from whether or not we’d expect church to be that full, just imagine how uncomfortable everyone would get with the noise. It would be a pretty noticeable interruption when the roof comes off, and someone starts getting winched down directly in front of the speaker! And if things were allowed to get that far, would we expect the speaker to respond, or kindly remind everyone that healing ministry takes place after the sermon, just before the coffee? Jesus responded to this expression of faith, not just with healing, but the almighty challenge of forgiving the man’s sins – something shocking and unprecedented which revealed the true nature of his mission and God’s love. Talk about disruption on every level.
When Paul wrote to churches to explain the gospel and what we need to do about it, teaching and praise were virtually inseparable. His challenging first letter to the Corinthians opens with recognition and praise of God, which links with praise to God for who he has made the church to be. The practical lessons are hard, but the context is always worship of God who makes all things possible in Jesus. The writer of the letter to the Romans – teaching so clever it gets taught in secular law schools today – cannot separate truth about God from praise to God. The letter opens with praise for what God is doing, develops into a story and legal case concerning our standards in life and how we can relate to God, and it is woven through with recognition and worship of God. At one pivotal point, between recognising God’s mercy and openness, and showing the response we need to make, the writer leads readers into worship – it might even have been a song:
“Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways! For who can know the Lord’s thoughts? Who knows enough to give him advice? And who has given him so much that he needs to pay it back? For everything comes from him and exists by his power and is intended for his glory. All glory to him forever! Amen.” (Romans 11:33-36, New Living Translation)
A typical Anglican service borrows praise from the New Testament letters and puts them all the way through our led prayer and worship. Are we as ready to let the teaching slots fill up with praise, even if that disrupts our structure? And for the non-Anglicans too: every church I’ve ever visited which rejoices in its freedom from liturgy and overly-structured services still has a structure and culture of its own. We probably can’t function as a body without structure. But we restrict ourselves, maybe even restrict what God can do among us, if our meetings have a “silo” structure separating worship, teaching and response into things we know we can easily plan and operate. Being true to God’s word, sharing it faithfully, brings worship, and growing faith that God can and will work among us, live, is an exciting and engaging thing.
So the really big challenge to speakers, I think, is to be as authentic and faithful as Jesus, Paul and the other apostles, full of grace and truth, while flexible and ready to respond to something God may choose to do as it happens. Paul had to interrupt what I’m sure was a great sermon in order to bring someone back from the dead. What an inconvenience! What was the bit people remembered from that night? Eutychus’ experience was memorable enough to include in the scriptural history of the early church. God does things at times we don’t expect – perhaps even when we meet together to worship!
Are our preachers trained to look and respond to those times, leading people into praise and worship, prayer and seeking, thanks and sharing DURING the sermon time when appropriate? It might demand more flexibility from the team which leads a service. It might require more attention from the congregation, and produce even more meaningful worship and whole hearted commitment to follow the things God is doing outside church as well as inside. I think I’d like to see more of that. I’d love to be the kind of leader who expects it, and gets the most from everyone following too, for God’s glory.