Monday, August 9, 2010

It's not about you

A recent New York Times column by Massachusetts UCC pastor G. Jeffrey MacDonald suggests "churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them" as though that were a bad thing. The column continues "In the early 2000s, the advisory committee of my small congregation in Massachusetts told me to keep my sermons to 10 minutes, tell funny stories and leave people feeling great about themselves."

Brings back memories, that does. As a seminarian in Boston 47 years ago, I was advised to write my sermons down, and limit their length. But that was because I had little of value to say yet, especially when I tried to preach without full notes. Fortunately for both me and the congregations I served, my preaching improved enough I was allowed to preach to an audience of thousands monthly on TV just four years later, for exactly 21 minutes each time.

In the Commodore computer era, I would occasionally speak before large groups, answering any and all questions, and was embarrassed to realize I was vastly more comfortable speaking about the details of operating a cheap computer than I was about the content of the Bible - because I knew so much more about the computer than the Bible.

Twenty-five years later, I know quite a bit more about the Bible than before, but still not nearly as much as many fellow 'Creekers. But I know enough to recognize that even Jesus used stories (parables) to keep the audience awake as he taught. I had Elmer King for that. He sat in the front row at the Church of All Nations in Boston, and as long as he occasionally said "Amen" or "Preach it" or really anything at all, I could continue. But when Elmer shut up, so did I, because he was thereby gently letting me know I no longer had anything to say worth the congregation's time to hear.

Pastor MacDonald seems to think church is all about him - what he thinks the congregation needs to hear. Worse, he seems to think whining in the newspaper will improve matters. Good luck with that!

As a counter example, I understand Pastor Rob Bell grew the start-up Mars Hill church in Grand Rapids, MI from nothing to 800 people in a year, preaching on nothing but the (to me incredibly-boring) book of Leviticus! I heard Rob myself two weeks ago, and as always, he easily kept me awake and learning for a full 45 minutes, without watering down any aspect of the Gospel.

As a 'Creeker, I am familiar with the "theater-style seating and giant projection screens" MacDonald decries, and would only remind him those came later. In the beginning, Willow was just a group of twelve teens with a student pastor. If that pastor hadn't listened to and shared the whispers of God as they attempted to recreate the loving community of the original Acts 2 church, there would never have been any theater seats or screens.

If it were just about being entertained, as MacDonald suggests, I for one wouldn't waste my time even showing up. What keeps me involved is the continuing sense that our congregation is the eye of the hurricane of what God is doing in this generation, and the chance to be part of that important work.

If MacDonald's church isn't like that, he might consider looking inward rather than outward for the reason. And when he's ready to actually do what God presumably called him to do, he might consider attending something like Willow's Leadership Summit next August rather than complaining about his sheep to wolves.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Welcome! Feel free to disagree, but please try not to be disagreeable about it. Like my dad, I'm often wrong, but never in doubt.