Pastor: You are too worried about First Impressions.

A few years ago, we launched an initiative called “The Glue Team.” The goal was to make our church more “sticky.” Our hope was that we could be more intentional about building relationships, specifically with those who were new to our church or on the margins of our church.

Essentially, we put together a team of about 12 people who committed to arriving early on Sunday mornings and spending their time in the worship center meeting people who were seated prior to the service.

(At our church, as I’m sure happens at many other churches, the first people into the worship center before the service are often those who do not have significant relationships or they are people who are visiting for the first time and don’t want to arrive late. Those who are well-connected often spend extra time in the lobby cafe reconnecting with each other.)

The Glue Team was a minimal success, but for a variety of reasons, we shut it down after about nine months. At the end of the run, we gathered the team for a debriefing meeting and to discuss what other methods might be more effective to accomplish our goals.

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For me, the biggest takeaway from that meeting was what I now call “The Opperman Principal.” My friend Charlie Opperman shared about a book he was reading that stressed the importance of closure and last impressions. He cited funerals as an illustration of the lengths to which we go in order to create a positive last impression of our friends and family members who have died. He suggested that we direct more focus on people’s “last impression” of The Gathering than on their first impression.

In some church circles, this is heresy. “First Impressions” has become an a cornerstone program in many church’s strategic connection plan. Amazon has multiple pages of books which were written to teach us how to make better first impressions at church. I agree that first impressions are important, but a great first impression will be forgotten after a bad last impression and a bad first impression can be overcome by a great last impression.

More often than not, the lasting impression is the last impression.

Our church is transitioning, not only in size but in staff roles. In the next few weeks, we will have a dedicated Pastor for Connections. His role is to empower people to move from their first connection at The Gathering into a LIFEgroup, a serving role or both. He will, of course, be overseeing our “first impression” team but he will also be paying close attention to our “last impression” experience.

Over the coming months, we will be constantly asking the question, “What needs to happen in order for someone to leave our parking lot and say, ‘I can’t wait to come back next week?'”

We will write the stories that lead to that statement. We will identify what we can control and work on to promote more people making that statement. And hopefully, the Opperman Principal will enable us to communicate more of God’s message to more people so that we can make more of a difference in more of God’s world.

I Put My Hands Up, They’re Playing My Song…

I came across this video the other day and loved every minute of it.

Andre Crouch was one of the first musicians I would have called my “favorite.” In fact, when I was in middle school, I played “My Tribute” on my trumpet in a talent competition called “Teens Involved.” It was one of those fundamentalist things. I actually made it to the national competition which was held in upstate New York.

Beyond that memory, I loved this video because it transported me back to the 80’s. It was fun to see many of the Christian Music stars who sang the only songs I was allowed to listen to (we didn’t do secular music back then). This felt a little like the evangelical version of “We Are The World.” The outfits and hairstyles made me feel young again, and honestly, I’d wear that stuff again.

Choirs are a sink or swim proposition. Either they are very good or they are very bad. For a few years in the mid-90’s, I was a choir director. I was the only associate in a smaller rural church. The church owned choir robes so it made sense that we should have a choir. Since I had played the trumpet in high school, I was chosen to lead the choir. I’m sure my inability and inexperience were frustrating to the 15-20 church members who made up our choir, but those people sang with all their hearts. Unfortunately, their talent didn’t make up for my lack thereof. Our choir was not good.

But the choir in this video? They are very good! I couldn’t help but think this was a little slice of heaven as people of every tribe and every nation gathered to sing the praise of the lamb. Like the creation in Genesis 1 and the New Creation in Revelation 21, it’s very good.

Then I had one more observation. And this is the real reason I’m writing this… NO ONE IS RAISING THEIR HANDS IN WORSHIP!

These days, the true worshippers worship God in spirit and in tomahawk chop (I jest). We have a tendency to evaluate the depth of people’s worship based on how high and how many hands they are raising. Like the Pharisees before us, we are judging the internal (a man’s heart) by the external (what we can see). I wonder if God would say the same thing to us as He did to Samuel, “Man looks on the outward appearance but God looks on the heart.”

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Just four decades ago, the greatest “worship choir” in the world was assembled and they sang a glorious rendition of “To God Be The Glory.” No one would have looked at them and said, “They aren’t raising their hands, they must not love worship.” If the hands up standard didn’t apply then, maybe it shouldn’t apply now.Somehow, in my lifetime, the standard operating procedure at every 80’s rock concert has become the standard operating procedure during most church worship services.

I’m not down on raising your hands during worship. If you want to do that, cool. It’s okay to worship with your hands held high. It’s okay to worship with your hands down, crossed, in your pockets, etc. It’s okay to worship with your eyes open or closed. It’s okay to worship by singing or by listening. It’s okay to worship while standing or sitting.

It’s not okay to judge your fellow worshipper because they don’t worship like you.

The Three Temptations Of The American Pastor

I’m going to write a lot more about this some day and I envision it will be a parable-type story I might want to create… (like a Patrick Lencioni book)

I would call it The Three Temptations of an American Pastor (I know, Lencioni wrote one very similar to this…)

The Three Temptations

  • Building
  • Bodies
  • Bucks

I sometimes wonder how much our kingdom mindset is skewed by our devotion to these three measurements. In my experience, most people (especially pastors!) judge a church’s success based on these three temptations.

Church Success

  • How big is your building?
  • How many people attend on Sunday?
  • How sizable are your offerings?

Of course, this doesn’t exactly match the Jesus model…

  • Not only did He not have a building, He didn’t have a home.
  • More people left His ministry than stuck with Him. (He eventually became so unpopular, they killed Him)
  • The biggest offering His followers ever took up was the bribe Judas received for betraying Him.

Maybe instead of these temptations we should be teaching our people to be hospitable, missional, and generous?

–> These ideas are a methodological snack for us to chew on. I’d love to get your thoughts in the comments.

The Post-Sermon Play-by-Play

Every so often I have a Sunday morning experience that I am quite certain is not unique to me. I call it the “Yes|But”. Anyone who preaches on a regular basis has probably tasted the “Yes|But” at some point in their ministry.

The “Yes|But” sounds something like this, “Pastor, I agree with what you said, BUT…”

Sound familiar?


Before you decide I’m being overly critical of the “Yes|But”, please allow me to finish. I have discovered that the Yes But can teach me a great deal about the words I just spoke.

Sometimes, when confronted by the “Yes|But”, I find myself feeling defensive. I immediately begin planning my response. I look for ways to show the Yes Butter that they are clearly in the wrong.

You can be certain that this response clearly indicates that the words I just preached were not God’s, they were my own.

The more defensive I am of the words I preach, the more likely it is that they reflect my ideas, not God’s.

Sometimes, though, when confronted with the “Yes|But”, I don’t feel the least bit defensive. Sometimes I feel quite peaceful, and sometimes, I have found myself feeling a genuine concern for the spiritual journey of the person speaking to me. When I don’t feel the need to defend my words, it is likely that they were really Gods words.

The beauty of speaking the Word of God is that I never have to defend myself. As long as I can say, “I am simply preaching directly from the Word of God”, I never have to worry about the “Yes|But”. I can always respond (at least in my mind), “you don’t have to agree with me, but please make sure you aren’t disagreeing with God.”

Are You Ready For Easter?

Dear Pastor,

Are you preparing for Easter?

I know… You just got past Christmas, Easter is months away, you have other people to do that stuff, you need to focus on this Sunday’s sermon…

I know you are busy, and maybe Easter isn’t really on your mind. But the truth is, you are already behind.

On Easter Sunday, more people will visit your church than any other weekend this year. More people who are looking for a welcoming church community will visit on Easter than any other weekend. More people who need to hear and believe the Gospel will be at your church on Easter than any other time. Easter provides you with an amazing opportunity, but it also carries a grave responsibility.

Will you be prepared to present the Gospel in a clear and relevant manner?

Will your people be prepared to welcome the explorers who show up to join your community that day?

Will your gatherings be planned and executed in a way that minimizes distractions and maximizes focus on the simple power of the Gospel?

Will your teams be ready to cultivate new relationships and graciously pursue those who show interest in the Gospel or in your community?

Are the members of your church empowered to go to the street corners and invite anyone they can find to the “banquet”?

Are you ready for Easter?

Dear Pastor, please begin today. You will have no greater opportunity this year to present the Gospel to such a large and needy group as you will on Easter. Please be sure you and your church are ready.

Thanks.

3 Questions to Help You Find Your Sermon’s Sweet Spot

Before you step behind the pulpit, turn on your wireless mic or fire up your iPad…
How do you know you have the right message?
 
Every preacher approaches their messages differently. We all have different methods and patterns and systems to help us create the final draft of our sermon. I’m not about to suggest there is only one way to do it (particularly because I use different methods just about every week); however, I am going to suggest three questions that might help you focus in on the most important things you need to say.
 
What has God said?
 
I don’t suppose this is a complicated question. What God has said is contained in His Word. I may be old fashioned, but I still think the content of every sermon ought to flow from the pages of the Bible.
 
If I want to preach the Words of God, I need to immerse myself in them. I need to study them, memorize them, meditate on them. I need to consult others to better understand them. Before I ever preach to others, I ought to have as clear an understanding as possible of what God has said.
 
Who are these people?
 
Not every congregation or audience is the same, and how I preach God’s Word to them ought to reflect who they are. Not everyone can always know exactly who their audience is, but if you are a pastor, you MUST spend regular time learning who the people are that sit in those pews every Sunday.
 
Every Monday I spend time reading notes, comments, prayer requests and praises from my brothers and sisters at The Gathering. They are kind enough to share their lives and thoughts with me by writing on the back of our “connection card” every Sunday. I try to email every one of them with a short note of encouragement so they know I enjoy hearing from them and want to hear more.
 
I also have other means by which I grow deeper relationships with the people in the pews. The method is not nearly as important as the outcome. If I am going to effectively preach to them, I must find a way to learn:
  • What is going on in their lives
  • How they are struggling
  • Where they have been victorious
  • When they have been disappointed
  • Why they are at our church
  • For whom they are burdened
How can I tell these people what God said?
 
I could easily spend 30 hours preparing for a sermon and then speak for an hour, dumping a massive amount of information on the congregation. I would walk away feeling good that I have taught and they have learned.
 
I choose to take the road less travelled.
 
For me, the most difficult element of sermon preparation is specifically crafting my words to particularly apply to my friends in the pews. I find it much more stressful to choose what I will not say, then to determine what I will say. Not everything I learn in my sermon preparation is what the people on Sunday need to learn. In fact, much of it is not what they need and could possibly distract them from what God truly wants them to hear.
 
(The Sermon on the Mount was NOT a 45 minute sermon!)
 
My general rule of thumb is as follows:
If I could preach this sermon to any congregation at any location; I still have work to do before I preach it to my congregation at my church.

Discover what God has said.

Determine to whom you’ll be speaking.

Discern what they need to hear from God.

Then trust the Holy Spirit to do the hard work!

Prepare Your People Before You Preach

Never forget that when you preach, you are preaching to someone. Have you ever grown weary of the attempting to deliver a life-changing message to people who haven’t prepared themselves to receive God’s Word? You should consider the concept that your sermon actually begins long before you stand up to preach. Provide your congregation with the tools they need to prepare themselves for Sunday morning. Below are some tools to help you accomplish this. Feel free to copy any of this material and distribute it to your own church:
Is Sunday morning the most important morning of your week? Most of us would say it is because Sundays are our time to come together with God and His people. Yet, I am often guilty of approaching Sunday with far less intentionality than the most important day of the week deserves. 
 
Today, I’d like to offer a few suggestions as to how you (and your family) can tweak your Sunday morning routine to make it the BEST day of the week!
 
HOW TO GET THE MOST OUT OF YOUR SUNDAY MORNING
 
 
Make your plans on Saturday night
It’s easy to sleep in Sunday morning, crawl out of bed, debate which service to go to and then finally decide to just take the morning off. Have a brief discussion with your spouse/family on Saturday night. Decide which service you want to attend (think about what the rest of your day looks like) and then set your alarms accordingly. You’ll be glad you did.
 
Spend a few minutes being quiet
Some time during the morning, find a quiet place in your home and relax for a few minutes. Spend some time talking to your Heavenly Father. Tell Him what’s on your mind and ask Him to show you what’s on His mind for you. Read a couple verses from the Bible. This time will empower you to have a calm and peaceful Sunday morning, which will enable you to have a meaningful and joyful experience at church.
 
Arrive at church early
Nothing is worse than arriving at the church, running in from the parking lot, racing through the child check-in process, speeding through the cafe and then sneaking into the service as the last song finishes up. By the time you catch your breath and your heart rate slows down, the service is over. Try to arrive early so you can enjoy your morning routine and feel relaxed and at ease when the service begins.
 
Enjoy coffee and a donut
Sometimes a Sunday service can be long and tiring with all the standing up and sitting down. Sometimes the preacher is less than exciting. You’ll have an easier time keeping your energy up and staying awake if you have a little energy boost before the service.
 
Find a seat before the service begins
If you get into the Worship Center before the service begins, you’ll have your pick of seats. Find something that works for you, but try not to isolate yourself. Once you’re seated, have a brief conversation with someone around you or take a minute and browse the information in your program. If the sermon passage is listed, you can read it before the service to give yourself a head start.
 
Make a new friend before you leave
Unless you know the name of everyone who attends your church (and none of us do), you always have a chance to make new friends. During the service, notice the people sitting near you that you’ve never met. Before you leave, greet them with a smile and introduce yourself. You never know what the outcome might be: you may never see them again or it might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Maybe all of these can be helpful for you. Maybe just one or two are beneficial for you. This Sunday is a great time to practice.

4 Simple Steps To Create A Preaching Calendar

File under: “What do pastors do with their time?”

Assembling An Annual Preaching Calendar.


Assumption One:
The Holy Spirit is active in my life and work in ways I can’t understand or identify.
Assumption Two: If my whole life is bathed in prayer, then my work will be bathed in prayer, as will this process.
Assumption Three: When striving to be faithful and obedient, I must first do everything I know to be right, and then what I believe to be wise, and finally what appears to be expedient. A preaching calendar is an expedient way to be wise about doing what is right.
Assumption Four: This type of thing, like virtually all ministry is not done alone. I think of myself as a clarifier more than a creator. I seek to hear many voices before beginning, and seek much refinement before ending.
Assumption Five: All this is flexible.

Step One: Ask four important questions

  • How do we understand discipleship? Can we identify clear discipleship elements we should address?
  • Who are we? How do we teach our people (from the Bible) about their identity as the church?
  • Where are we as a body? What truths do our people need?
  • Where am I? What is God saying to me right now? Why shouldn’t I share it?
At the end of step one, I should have a long brainstormed list of potential topics, book studies, theological issues, virtues, etc. which may be developed into preaching series.

Step Two: Identify key dates in the calendar around which teaching series may be built:

  • Easter
  • Mother’s Day/Father’s Day
  • National Holidays (if you must)
  • Thanksgiving
  • Christmas
  • Labor Day (this signals the end of the summer, which in many places means people come back to church the next week. It’s a big mistake to start a series right before or on Labor Day.)
At the end of step two, I may have tentatively plugged some of the brainstormed series into the calendar. While I may yet move them, I now have an idea of what other series may be helpful to effectively disciple the people of our church for the coming year.

Step Three: Consider means by which you can create a balanced year of teaching

As a general rule, I like to do Old Testament studies in the fall because they naturally lead up to Christmas. I like to do the Gospels after the new year because they lead into Easter. The rest of the year is a good time to look at the epistles, poetry, etc.

Step Four: Find the best places for the “Special Days” which need to be included

In many churches, the “special days” are things like baptism, communion, missions reports, etc. Baptism and communion particularly are days we try to set aside to really focus on the celebration. Sometimes these days fall naturally into a series we are doing, and sometimes they need to be placed as a stand-alone between series.

Conclusion:

Obviously, there’s more to it, but this is just a rough outline, and all this is just the opening activity. The next step is really where the hard work starts as I break down each series, determining the key teaching points and biblical truths which will form the main ideas for each week’s sermon. But that’s another post for another time.

Church Is A Team Sport

Several years ago, I came across a book called Church is a Team Sport. Written by Jim Putman, it was essentially a mashup of church philosophy and ministry memoirs. I didn’t finish it, because it slowed a bit in the middle, but I really enjoyed the beginning.

(I’ve noticed over time that many books start great, but fizzle in the middle and at the end. I think it’s because the author puts their great idea out there, explains it and then has to create enough filler stuff to get the publishing houses to bite. Like sermons, books should be short and to the point. That said, it could also be a me-problem. Maybe I just have too short an attention span)

I wrote down some of my favorite quotes from the book, and recently came across them. I’m always interested in thinking about how to be a better team builder, so I re-read them. I figured you might enjoy some of these also:

  • “When I speak of church, I mean a body of believers working as individuals and together as a team to achieve the Lord’s goals.”

  • “some say, ‘Well then, a small group can be a church.’ I agree, it can be, but a lot of small groups working together with accountability, organization, and good coaching can do more for the kingdom than one small group can. A team of focused and organized people in a local area can do something together for and with God that could not be done as individuals or even as a small group.

  • “Either Jesus is a liar because the gates of hell are prevailing against the church. Or…the church that is being prevailed against isn’t Jesus’ church at all. Jesus did not promise that the gates of hell would not prevail against a church but that it would not be able to stop His church.”

  • “As a result of a pastor’s ‘show’ mentality, many Christians have come to believe their job is to attend the show.

  • “When the paid-player mentality guides the church, everything becomes a show… So the answer is to pay big money for franchise players who will give a great performance that will draw the thousands of kids and youth in their area. They scour the land to steal a great player from another team, while their best players are being scouted as well.”

  • “if you love your people and help them grow in their relationship with Jesus and help them find relationships with others on your team, people will put up with less because they know they are loved.”

  • “God’s idea of a coach is one who creates a system that develops people into great players.”

  • “A pastor can’t do everything, but his responsibility is to make sure all the positions on the team are filled.

  • “Churches often have stated goals but behaviors that circumvent or work against them. For instance, we might say we want to reach the world, but we do things that keep us from being in contact with the world we want to reach. We plan an outreach, but it is really designed to attract people who already think like us (other believers). We don’t know how to relate to lost folks, so we pray and expect that God will bring them to us.”

  • Remember the church grows by word of mouth. No one will bring people to something that will embarrass them.

  • “To create an effective environment, you have to break down every part of what you do and ask some important questions: Is this biblical? Will this move someone to where we want to take them next? Is this as relational as we can make it? Is this relevant and applicable to life? The answers to these questions depend on your target audience.”

If you want to read the whole book, it’s available on Amazon. Click here.

In Defense of Topical Preaching

Several years ago I read this critique of topical preaching. In the mind of the author “relevance” was not a positive motivation for preaching:

The great advantage of topical preaching is its relevance. The preacher can choose topics he knows will be of immediate interest to his listeners. The assumption is that in a culture like ours only that information which can be put to use quickly and easily will engage people. The topical sermon meets that need.

I understand this idea, and I agree that this kind of topical preaching is done in many churches today. I also don’t think it’s wrong, but it wouldn’t be my first choice.

However… I think some/many pastors have a different (AND MISUNDERSTOOD) rational for preaching “topical sermon”. The assumption this fellow makes, as well as many others who are critical of topical preaching, is that the topics are chosen solely to interest and engage the congregation. This would be unhealthy, and should usually be avoided, but…

If a pastor, acting as a shepherd, observes an aspect of his church’s life which needs to be addressed (such as lack of evangelism, unfriendliness, forms of worldliness, etc.); isn’t it incumbent on this pastor to preach sermons which address this topic?

It is my contention that a good portion of any preaching schedule should include topical messages which specifically address the spiritual health of the congregation. While every section of God’s Word always has something to say to every believer, if a church spends an entire year working through the Gospel of John, they have neglected the opportunity to teach a vast amount of the Bible’s truth; and may not be adequately addressing systemic issues and opportunities which exist in the life of the community.

In closing, I’ll make a short observation. Read Matthew 28:20. There Jesus taught that discipleship is:

teaching obedience based on content

NOT

teaching content which leads to obedience

Of course, this is not a necessary dichotomy and the two should not be played against each other. Rather, we should recognize in preaching, that sometimes TOPICAL messages (which are, of course, biblically based and biblically coherent) are necessary to truly disciple a church body to obedience.