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preaching like shrek – brett jones

Shrek

It’s a question for the ages: how do we do preaching in a way that is engaging across the age groups?

In our context, we do OK with 2 of the more challenging demographics – youth and younger adults.  But we began asking questions about how we could do a better job engaging with children through preaching.

Some swear by Children’s talks.  Others have their Children’s workers take a families’ service.  Messy Church works for some.  Others have made use of the Children’s Story Book Bible.  We weren’t the first to ask the question.

But when we looked at the options that others had tried they didn’t fit us.  So we asked a different question: what occasions do parents and children happily inhabit the same communication space?

The answer for us?  Shrek.  Toy Story.  The LEGO movie.  Masterpieces in story-telling and character development that span the age ranges with their clever multi-level scripts that engage universal human themes.

We began the process of deconstructing the Shrek phenomenon against some of our other convictions and came up with a bit of a list:

  • Story is a universal paradigm – the right stories told in the right ways will reach anyone. Preachers already use stories in different ways as they construct parables, illustrations, allegories or narrative sermons – could we learn from Jesus and Shrek in our storytelling?
  • Journey offers something to the worship space – if our services are dualistic in nature, fractured down the preaching v worship divide then the worship journey is unhelpfully constrained. What if the whole thing was worship and the preaching components were part of the journey?
  • Learning styles are different for different people – does the available media give us opportunities to engage people in different ways according to learning style preferences and attention span?
  • Layering content is something made more possible by technology – what if some of the preached material was made available in real time but only accessible by adults as a part of amplifying content – sort of real time footnotes or hyperlinks
  • Participation or perhaps a more focused term, response, is at the heart of authentic worship – How will we plan for response?

The result was preaching that was story-based with strong interactive elements including opportunities for elements of the narrative to be owned by participants.  Narrative preaching elements, usually broken into 3 chunks that defined the worship journey, were constructed in various forms – allegories, point of view stories from biblical characters, point of view narratives from within biblical accounts (but not necessarily from biblical characters), fictional accounts that reflected biblical truths in the story lines…really whatever we could come up with!  These included:

  • The Quest – an allegorical fairy tale that engaged with self-sacrificial love and the in-breaking Kingdom of God
  • The Great Easter Mystery – a Cluedo style mystery recounted by Luke the archivist in his library
  • Unfrozen: Unfreezing Faith With Frozen – a tour through the songs of Frozen and the biblical resonances and discords that emerge – we made hearts of ice and everyone got to let them go…
  • Letters to God – Writing letters with David the psalmist
  • A Fishy Tale – the story of Jesus’ calling of the disciples as told by Simon Peter’s younger brother
  • The Great Adventure – the story of a young boy who longs to see the Messiah and begins to follow up rumours of a King born in Bethlehem (the story hints that this might be a young Simon Peter…)
  • Life Lessons from the Lego Movie – a story about Jesus the Special and Emmet (Hebrew for truth…)

Throughout, the preached components were complemented by other elements that together advanced the worship journey through the use of media, communion, active responses, table talk interaction, contemplative stations, prayer, worship singing, scripture reading and a popcorn maker.

For us this became a monthly part of our rhythm that was highly valued as an expression of integrated, all-age worship.

A couple of questions emerge from this journey:

In what ways might we re-envision how preaching fits into the wider worship journey?  What opportunities do we have in our contexts to include genuine all-age approaches to worship?

the unnecessary pastor – brett jones

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I found myself in a recent encounter with Dawn and Petersen’s “The Unnecessary Pastor” and began to question the “necessariness” of the preacher.  As often happens in these fascinating internal monologues, I discovered some resonance with both trajectories – becoming less necessary and more necessary…

The strength of the idea that “the pastor as preacher is unnecessary” gives voice to a troubling dynamic that is sometimes present for the preacher.  The three arenas of dysfunctional necessity defined in the book are the world, ego and the congregation.  These three sources of influence can become unhelpful for the preacher who can find herself questioning what the non-Christian (world) will think of the offence of the gospel, elevating her ability to influence the congregation through preaching beyond what God might do (ego) and trapped in the cycle of congregational feedback and approval (congregation).  A discomfort with this sense of all not being well can lead to a withdrawal from the sense of call that preaching requires.  We end up preaching for others or ourselves but not speaking of God.  As a wise person once said, “The greatest problems with my preaching all arise if my ‘self’ forgets its rightful place.”

I love how Barbara Brown Taylor describes the preacher as a less a principal player and more as a “go-between, a courier” serving 2 ancient lovers.  This is poetically appealing, but in its attempt to define the unnecessary, perhaps it devalues the necessary.  I don’t want to elevate myself but surely I’m more than a go-between with little of myself to give?

The alternative source of necessity modeled by Paul is that of the call of Christ himself.  This is a call to nurture and protect – this kind of preacher is very necessary.  A well-guarded sense of call provides the antidote to the unnecessary preaching temptation but it also provides the preacher with a sense of presence and purpose that is not internally derived.  I am not just a go-between.  I am an ambassador.  And my commitment to translating eternal truths, the diplomacy of effective illustration and offering empathetic application is needed if relationship with God is to be nurtured and protected.

Perhaps this sense of call will lead us as preachers to become unnecessary insofar as the dysfunction of being needed drives the preaching impulse.  But it will also lead us as preachers to embrace the office of preacher as calling.  The office of preaching needs the needs the imprint of personality without being reduced to it.  And for that to happen we must be called by the necessity of the gospel.

a new advent? – brett jones

Advent_Wordle

Our church community pays some attention to a few seasons within the traditional liturgical calendar.  We’ve done Lent for many years and tend to do Epiphany as well with a New Year’s twist – a sort of mash up of religious and cultural “festivals”.  Oh and then there’s Easter and Christmas the high point for so many that seems to run from All Saints Eve (Halloween?) through to 25 December.  This feeling is only accentuated by spending some time recently in the US where the window dressing campaigns of the major department stores helpfully remind you which season you’re in and what festive fiscal response is required.  Imagine my surprise (irony alert) to return home to discover that Christmas is well and truly under way in November without the speed hump of American Thanksgiving to slow it down.  There are Santa Parades, Christmas events, Coke Cola sing-alongs that one or two get-along to and Christmas parties stacked higher than Santa’s sleigh.  Is our NZ downhill to Christmas contributed to by the fact that work is winding down for so many (or winding up depending on your industry) and whoever you are it’s nearly Christmas if only we could hold out for a few more weeks and days?  Christmas and the accompanying summer holidays have a magnetic pull on our priorities, our bank accounts and our time.

As Christmas in the culture arrives ever earlier, what are doing in the church?  Are we racing to Christmas with the same abandon and desperation?  Many churches are participating in the season of Advent as a part antidote to the Christmas slide.  It a time of slowing down, anticipating, finding a point of identification with the people of God who eagerly and patiently awaited their Messiah.  But there’s a problem.  A disconnect if you like.  It shouldn’t be a big surprise but every year for many churches it’s a surprise nonetheless.

Most people are too busy to do Advent!  They’ve already committed to the endless stream of Christmas parties, Christmas lists and Christmas preparations.  The idea of Advent lists (where stuff gets taken off) or Advent preparations (where we learn to wait) are squeezed out by the main attraction.  And as for Advent parties?  Well if they’re your Sunday services you may find yourself less full than you will on Christmas Day.  No one is actually around for the Advent journey.

Which argues some might say for a New Advent.  A Pre-Advent perhaps.  Is there a case for preaching schedules to respond to this challenge?  Is our addiction to consumer culture so pervasive that we will need target specific resources to enabling our communities of faith to grow as disciples of Christ in the very season that celebrates his announcement and birth?

Leslie Newbigen framed the issue this way:

“In a society which has exalted the autonomous individual as the supreme reality, we are accustomed to the rich variety offered on the supermarket shelves and to the freedom we have to choose our favorite brands. It is very natural that this mentality should pervade our view of religion. . . . It is a move that puts the self in the center of the universe. . . . It is the authentic product of a consumer society.”

Is it time to reshuffle the shelves?  Maybe we need to put the No back into November?!

P.S. Hope you’re not too busy to diarise this for next year…

doubly transparent: convictions about the character of preaching – brett jones

Cleaning Glass

In my early reading on preaching, I became aware of a tension around the degree of personal transparency that a preacher should adopt.  Simply put, the “for” view was premised on the idea that a preacher needed to be accessible to the hearer and the hearers’ world.  A real live person in the pulpit was instrumental to the hearers’ assessment of authenticity and the degree to which there was an “empathy exchange” within the preaching engagement.  The “against” view was that such an approach risked an unhealthy focus on the preacher to the exclusion of the text and ultimately Christ.  Authenticity was potentially also a credibility-killer: yes it might be great to empathise with a real live human being as preacher, but might this transparency go too far so that credibility is actually lost?

I wondered whether both ideas might be right and whether they together create a necessary tension in the preacher.  This has led to a conviction about the character of preaching – that a preacher should be doubly transparent.

When I am doubly transparent, I am present as a real person with past failures, present struggles and future aspirations but I am also “see-through” in that God is not obscured by my personality.

Phillip Brooks makes the same kind of point when he says that “preaching is the bringing of truth through personality” and that if either dimension is sacrificed it is not preaching – both the truth of preaching and the human medium of communication must be present.  Barbara Brown Taylor’s words say it better than I could:

“By choosing Christ to flesh out the word, God made a lasting decision in favour of incarnation.  Those of us who are his body in the world need not shy away from the fact that our own flesh and blood continue to be where the word of God is made known.  We are living libraries of God’s word.”

I love the way one of history’s great preachers provides the counterpoint on this – Spurgeon brings a caution against the over adornment of a sermon with illustration generally (personal or otherwise) saying “our figures are meant not so much to be seen as to be seen through.”  This cautionary restatement of the tension within the doubly transparent conviction leads me to experience: the preacher is fully present, as a flawed, redeemed human being – it’s not a lecture – but fully transparent – it is not a performance either…

I’d be interested in how preachers maintain the tension in their own preaching practice: how do we keep the tension alive and remain doubly transparent in ways which keep the focus on Christ’s redemptive work?

brett jones – preparation: prepared and revealed

The dichotomy between careful preparation and spontaneous delivery in preaching has consumed many a congregation as they pursue authentic revelation.

For some, the discipline and detail of extended preparation offers due recognition to the great responsibility of preaching.  Other times it has seemed that the voices promoting the spontaneity of the Spirit’s inspiration have been as loud in omitting to reference those scriptures that promote a Spirit-led order!

The dichotomy is of course patently false. Revelation is not constrained by the moment. Indeed it is arguable that revelation in the moment of delivery is aided by preparation in that it highlights that a departure from what has gone before is being (re)directed by the Holy Spirit.

But perhaps both dynamics are critical convictions for preaching.

Preaching is not complete until proclamation has occurred – in that sense preparation is not preaching on its own.  And yet preaching is an enabling component of worship rather than the goal of worship.  Within the wider context of the worship service as a whole, it operates as a crucial “hinge” on which the door of revelation swings.  Preaching is both a source of revelation and an invitation to response.  It is not alone in providing these functions within the context of worship, but it is never (or should never be) separated from the balance of revelation and response which exists across a worship service.  This dynamic of revelation and response is what marks authentic worship and, within the wider framework of worship, authentic preaching.

However, the act of preparation is as much a revelatory process as preaching an inspired thought in the moment of proclamation.  I love this nugget from Barbara Brown-Taylor which captures this beautifully:

“My own begins with a long sitting spell with an open Bible on my lap, as I read and read and read the text.  What I am hunting for is the God in it, God for me and for my congregation at this particular moment in time.  I am waiting to be addressed by the text in my own name, to be called out by it so that I look back at my human situation and see it from a new perspective, one that is more like God’sI am hoping for a moment of revelation…”

Perhaps what we sometimes see is a human response to this seeming tension that operates so as to marginalise the other, out of fear maybe of the consequences of functioning in both?  For one, the act of preparation requires a personal intimacy with God that is too raw to take into the public act of preaching.  For another, the moment of revelation requires a personal risk taking before God (and others) which is too raw to enact within the public act of preaching.  These positions as extremes deny preachers the life-giving immediacy of God at work through the scriptures and in the life of the preacher.

Both convictions sit heavily however and the wrestle to engage God publicly and privately – through preparation and in the moment – become more actively engaged as the insufficiency of living outside this tension is played out in insufficient preaching.

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Brett Jones is pastor to cession|community in the eastern suburbs of Auckland and Assistant National Superintendent (Church Development) for the Wesleyan Methodist Church.  In his spare time he is father to 3 and husband to 1.

brett jones – transformance: more than meets the eye…

I like to make up new words. You’d think there might already be enough to go round! But sometimes new words are required… As I wrestle with the goal and act of preaching, the tension which sometimes exists between the two seems to require something new.

 

Barbara Brown Taylor encapsulates the tension beautifully:

 

Watching a preacher climb into the pulpit is a lot like watching a tight rope walker climb onto the platform as the drum roll begins. The first clears her throat and spreads her notes; the second loosens his shoulders and stretches out one rosin-soled foot to test the taut rope.  They both step out into the air, trusting everything they have done to prepare for this moment as they surrender themselves to it, counting now on something beyond themselves to help them do what they love and fear and most want to do.

 

Preachers need to take the performance aspects of preaching seriously, the development of the craft of preparation and delivery, and not simply abandon the performance to “let go and let God”. There is value in reducing the unintended distraction of idiosyncrasy as well as enriching our, often limited, default preaching styles.

 

But performance is never the goal of preaching.

 

The goal of preaching is transformation. And transformation does not itself come about because of how clever, or how fluent, or how nuanced, or how incredibly funny we might be. Transformation is God’s domain. And yet, strangely God invites preachers into the domain of revelation to be part of the dynamic of revelation and response that characterises transformation. We might well pray that our presence there might not dispel His presence, but the truth of the matter is that, while we might not be the source of transformation we can certainly suppress it when we are casual in the performance aspects of the act of preaching.

 

In a place of such tension a new word is needed: transformance. I love what Thomas Oden says of the intersection of the preacher’s performance and moments of transformation:

 

“…one may experience oneself grasped inwardly by the claim and power of the gospel…”

 

And in this moment of being grasped inwardly, performance is swept up as the preacher himself is transformed. Transformance. So much more…

 

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Brett is pastor to cession|community in the eastern suburbs of Auckland and Assistant National Superintendent (Church Development) for the Wesleyan Methodist Church.  In his spare time he is father to 3 and husband to 1.