Category Archives: Pastors and Leaders

Scaring the hell out of the world

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Well-meaning Christians often use terminology that to non-believers sounds like extremism or radical fundamentalism.  You may have heard any of the following words or phrases in your church-going experience:

“Turn the world upside down”

“World-changers, Planet-shakers”

Military metaphors like “Take the world from the enemy” or

“Enlist in God’s army”

“Set the world on fire”

These things sound like chaos, destruction, warfare or religious and can make people actually concerned.  Religion is already associated enough with war, control, greed, the crusades, terrorism and other things that terms like the above can elicit in those we are trying to reach.

I know people mean well when they say things like this.  When they talk about being radical, they mean to be counter-culture with things like love, forgiveness and grace.   Christians may want to “set the world on fire” with the loving message of God’s saving grace.  We may intend to “turn the world upside down” by seeing people turn from sin and live for God.  But that may not be how people hear it.  May I suggest that the world needs to hear the church talk more about hope, healing, encouragement, love and grace.  Perhaps we could talk more about reaching the poor, hurting and lonely people who need some positivity.  Just a thought.

When Jesus spoke in the synagogue for the first time as an adult (Luke 4:16-19) he read from Isaiah 61.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Now let’s look at the words and phrases Jesus used to change the world:

Spirit

good news

freedom

recovery

set the oppressed free

favor

People need to hear a message of positivity, love, encouragement, healing and forgiveness.  They need The Good News.  The world suffers enough from natural disasters, disease, tragedy, wars, terrorism, poverty, social injustice and a host of other problems.  In my opinion, there’s enough chaos.  We could try to change our words and actions to bring healing, love and hope.

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Avoid the trap of a boring church routine

Let’s face it:  sometimes we don’t feel like going to church.

Most don’t like to admit that because it doesn’t sound spiritual.  Or worse, people might call you a heretic or ask you if you’re back-sliding.  But when church gets boring or stale, it can cause people to skip and spend their time in other ways.  Anything we do in life can become stale at times, from work to relationships to our favorite TV shows or weekly restaurant choices.  Sometimes, it’s good to shake things up.  Take on a new project or hobby.  Have a date night on a random weeknight or take a spontaneous trip.  Try a new restaurant or prepare a recipe at home you’ve never tried.  Turn off the TV and do something different.  We encourage individuals to freshen things up now and then.

So why not do the same for church ministries?  Even the most unique churches usually follow a certain format or pattern.  It can feel too programmed, regimented or manufactured. 

Church leaders go to conferences, read books and websites and talk amongst themselves about how to attract people, keep people, grow in number and spirituality.  They say that to reach adults, have a great children’s ministry and provide great programs.  They say that doing a series that lasts 4-6 weeks will make people want to come back to enjoy that series.  (They don’t consider if someone doesn’t like the series, they could choose to skip the next 4-6 weeks).  It’s “different” to have coffee and donuts in the lobby, or call your small groups “life” groups, or “community” groups or some other wording.  I’ve sat in on meetings where pastors discuss calling it a program instead of a bulletin to not be too religious, or have to plan how they’ll walk up the steps.  They think they are doing things “outside the box” when really they’re just slightly rearranging items inside the box.

Pastors these days have to plan and regiment everything.   Services are timed in great detail.  While it’s good to have a plan, and try to accommodate a schedule that includes more than one service on Sunday, the spontaneity and fun (and passion) can often be subdued. I’ve been to many churches that claim to be edgy and different, but really are a carbon copy of every non-denominational styled church these days.

Regimented.  Programmed.  Manufactured.  Cookie cutter.

I took a leadership class in college taught by the President of the University.  The school had a policy to take attendance each class and to write students up for skipping too many times.  He took attendance the first class and told us that he won’t be doing that every class, only the first couple times.  He just wanted to get to know our names.  He acknowledged the policy (again he was the President) but said that the responsibility should be on the professors:  “if your class is interesting enough, students will want to attend.  If students aren’t attending your class, maybe you need to do a better job of keeping them there.

Don’t get me wrong, I know churches mean well.  And some people like repetition and shy away from change.  You don’t want to change just for change’s sake and you do need structure and stability.  But we also could use some variety, to experience something fresh and new.  Mix it up a little. 

In the same way that individuals are encouraged to shake things up to bring some refreshing to their lives, here are some suggestions churches can do to bring variety to their ministry life.

  • Do an acoustic worship set, or even acapella (or a totally different style of music altogether). 
  • Do something creative like more visual demonstrations and modern day parables. 
  • Get more people from your church involved so it’s more about community and less about watching a show on stage.
  • Shake up the order of service: perhaps spend more time on worship and prayer and shorten the sermon
  • Have special services with no sermon but more involvement from people, creative performances or even viewing a Christian short film.
  • Invite guest speakers, artists and performers to bring some fresh perspective (and give your volunteers a break)
  • Plan more community events
  • Team up with other churches in the area for joint service and outreach projects, and have a joint worship gathering after to celebrate what God is doing in your community.

 There really is no limit to the number of ideas you can try.  I encourage you to pray and seek God about what ways you can liven things up to bring some variety and add interest to your ministry.

What are some creative things you’ve tried in your ministries that you’ve found successful?


God doesn’t play favorites, so why do we?

Remember the story when James and John asked Jesus if they could sit next to him on the throne in heaven?  They had an opportunity to follow Jesus in person and witness his life and ministry and their concern was to jockey for position in the afterlife.  We roll our eyes and shake our heads at that story, but as we look in the mirror at ourselves we need to think about how we can have similar pride or ambition and often miss the point.

Matthew 20:16:  “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Several years ago my wife and I attended a ministry meeting for a new program at Saddleback Church where Rick Warren is the pastor.  A guy at the meeting kept name-dropping the pastor’s wife Kay Warren every time he spoke (which was a lot more than anyone else).  It was unneccessary and had nothing to do with the meeting at hand, but he would begin with “I was just talking to Kay last month at a meeting…” or “This reminds me of when I had lunch with Kay one time and…”

Whether your pastor is known all over the world or just in your local community there are people in our congregations who like to cozy up to the pastor for recognition and attention.  I’ve experienced this both as a pastor and observing others.  Pastors get hounded and approached pretty often by people with self-promoting or self-serving ideas.  People generally like to name drop and feel important if they had lunch with the pastor or ran into them at the grocery store and made brief small talk.

Some church people also like to pretend they are associated with a person or ministry whether they really are or not.  They talk about how they “sat under” someone’s teaching which makes it sound like they had individual or small group mentoring and training, but really they just attended the church on Sundays like everyone else.   Some people only like to volunteer in areas where they will get attention or recognition. 

Romans 2:11:  “For God does not show favoritism.”

Pastors and leaders can let these things go to their heads as well.  TV and internet ministries, leading a congregation of people looking up to you and applying leadership principles from the corporate world a little bit more than Jesus’ servant model can lead to big heads (and often bigger falls).  Leadership can also fail by choosing people for leadership positions based on popularity or material factors like money or connections.  Churches that have have cameras recording their services often only let people of their choosing sit in prominent seats.  Yet throughout the Bible, God continually chooses the humble and broken and least likely people to lead and do great things.

1 Samuel 16:7:  “But the LORD said to Samuel, ‘Have no regard for his appearance or stature, because I haven’t selected him. God doesn’t look at things like humans do. Humans see only what is visible to the eyes, but the LORD sees into the heart.'”

It’s important for all Christians to follow the example of Christ, “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant…” (Philippians 2:6-7).  The night before He died, Jesus showed his disciples how to lead:  by serving (washing their feet).  Ultimately, he laid down his life for the Church.  (And the same people who wanted to be at his side in heaven, were nowhere to be found when he was suffering and dying.)

 We’re all a part of God’s family.  We should practice humility and realize we’re all on the same team.  That goes for pastors, elders, leaders, deacons, teachers, volunteers, members, regulars, visitors and seekers as well.  God doesn’t play favorites;  we’re all His favorite.

Luke 14:7-11:  “When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable:  “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited.  If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. 

But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests.  For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”


Church announcements don’t have to be boring

Ugh.  ::rolling my eyes::  “Here come the boring announcements.” 

 Where does your church put the announcements?  In between the music and preaching?  At the end while people have half a foot out the door?  How do you give important information and keep people’s attention in a service packed with information? 

 1. Be prepared.

 Make sure the announcer has all the correct and pertinent information.  How many times have you seen someone on stage calling out to the crowd or looking around for the point person who knows the answer to shout it (without a mic) from the back of the room?  If you think it’s easy to lose an audience while preaching, if you miss a beat during announcements people are already tuning you out and thinking about their lunch plans or what time the game starts.

 I helps to use Powerpoint slides that have all the information on them, so people can read along and get the message visually.  Many churches show the announcements as a Powerpoint slide show before and after the service as well.

 2. Don’t assume any details are already known.

 I was new to a church a few years ago and heard the following announcement:  

 “Join us this Friday at 7pm for Stillwaters!  You don’t want to miss it, and you never know if Miss Puddin’ might show up!” 

 What?  If I’m a guest or new to the church, what the heck does that mean?  Later on I found out that Stillwaters is a Motown-style night of singing and comedy and “Miss Puddin'” is a Madea type comedic character that dresses in costume and does jokes.  But that type of announcement alienated anyone who did not already know what it was, and did not create interest for anyone new to check it out.

 3. Be Creative.

More and more churches are using video announcements.  People react to video and perk up and pay attention.  It is a good way to break up the monotony of a service, although anything that you do every week the same way will become monotonous if you’re not careful.  It could be as simple as someone delivering the same type of announcement as they would on stage, but in a different setting (outside, a living room, a popular location around town) can add just enough interest.
 
One of the most creative announcements I’ve seen was during my internship with a College and Young Adults ministry.  One of the worship team members would periodically get up and make up funny/silly songs to play on his guitar and sing the announcements.  He’d turn the key points into a catchy chorus and the crowd would sing along, helping them to remember it.  This is something to be used sparingly as it would get old really quick, plus be difficult to keep coming up with creative songs.
 
Using some type of comedy skit is another way some people might use.  However, the way most churches present skits is usually awful, clichéd and hokey.  I recommend not using this method unless you have a talented and established drama team of some sort that knows what they’re doing.  You’ll do more harm than good if it’s bad.  As with songs, use this method even more sparingly to just shake things up now and then.  Perhaps only use it for major announcements.
 
Some churches go for a big stunt, such as some crazy youth worker sliding up the aisle on a Slip N Slide to announce the youth group water park outing.  Use discretion and caution with these types of stunts!
 
4.  Keep it simple, but effective.
 
Overall, it’s best to keep it simple.  Choose people who are effective communicators and are not boring.  Cover the key points (date, time, location, deadlines) and direct them to the website or bulletin for more information.  You don’t have to treat it like a prescription drug commercial and cover every detail. 
 
A well-made Powerpoint slide or bulletin announcement that is clear, concise and informative is always effective.


Sermons in 20 minutes or less

Pastor,

Think about the sermon you’re planning for this Sunday.  Pretend someone on your staff asks you what it’s about.  Can you summarize it for them and tell them the key points in a couple of sentences?  You should be able to.  You can summarize the key points and get to the crux of the message if you have to explain it to someone prior.

Fast forward to Sunday morning.  You expand on the key points with stories, illustrations, the Hebrew or Greek,  your personal experience with the topic and offer practical applications.  All good things.

However, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.  If a sermon is too long, you risk losing the congregation.  It’s common knowledge that our society has an ever-decreasing attention span.  If content is truly captivating, we’ll pay attention.  But even then we often want quick messages, or at least variety.

I know there are churches and pastors that feel the longer a service goes, the more spiritual it is.  I don’t have a problem with a long sermon…if it’s good.  If the content is not repetitive, is well developed and the speaker is captivating then even a sermon over 45 minutes can be good.  However, too many sermons are full of fluff and are absurdly repetitive.  Not every message needs multiple points and multiple sub-points.  It’s ok to just have one theme or idea and discuss it for 10-15 minutes.

Some ideas pastors use to keep sermons short and add variety to keep attention spans:

  • “Tag team” sermons with more than one speaker
  • Break up your points with songs, video, testimony from people (ministry isn’t just about the pastor)
  • Have a Q&A time so people can interact with the material and embrace it.
  • Incorporate action steps to respond such as a journaling station, a place to draw or paint, light a candle and pray in the corner and other ideas to help people meditate and respond to the message.
  • Break a larger message into two parts, or a series if necessary
  • Be brief, but go deeper in classes or small groups throughout the week
  • Supplement material on your website, blog, Facebook or Twitter pages or weekly email follow ups.

Remember that not every sermon needs to be long to be effective.  Some of the great sermons in the Bible and throughout history were short and to the point.  In Acts 2, the Apostle Peter stood before the crowd and spoke a brief message and 3,000 people were saved.  As you prepare your sermons, try to think about the quality vs. quantity and go for maximum impact in a shorter time, and consider some of these suggestions for supplementing your message to draw your congregation into greater interest.

 


Practical Tips for Worship Leaders – part 2

My previous post, found here, discussed some practical tips for worship leaders.  The post was getting too long so I broke it up.  Here is the rest.

Shake it up:

Most churches have a certain style and format.  But now and then, it’s nice to change it up and do something interesting.  Some different things you can try to keep from becoming stale:

Switch lead instrument; swap piano for guitar or vice versa

Do an all acoustic set.  Have the whole band unplug or have just one person and a guitar/piano.

Add a different genre of music.

Use special songs or solos from talent in your congregation or worship team.

Incorporate video, dance or other accompaniments.

Do an occasional song a capella.

Sing an old hymn, or a song from 5+ years ago.   Bonus points for changing up the music to make it current (this has been a trend for several years now).

Talent and “perfection”

I live in Nashville, TN where it’s very difficult for people on worship teams to balance the spiritual and the performance aspect. No matter where you are, you may face similar challenges.  There may be other musicians in the congregation, but us regular folks probably won’t notice a missed chord, a bad note, or if it sounds “pitchy.”  We can’t sing or play and you are infinitely more talented than us.  You want to do everything with excellence, but you can also relax and realize the heart is what matters most.

Some other tips

Vocal runs – please use these sparingly.  You’re not auditioning for American Idol.  When you go away from the melody and lyrics and do your own thing, you lose us.  Remember, we’re following you.  Sometimes it works, especially if the song is familiar and we can sing it on our own.  Still, it can confuse or distract us so try to keep it to a minimum.  That goes for the backup singers, too.  You don’t have to fill every space between lyrics trying to sound like Christina Aguilera.

Stepping back to let the audience sing – do you ever notice, unless it’s a familiar song and the crowd is really into it, that when you stop singing and want to hear the crowd, we get quieter?   Some people who don’t have good singing voices don’t want others around them to hear.  So people keep singing out of obligation but quiet down and the song can lose momentum.  Sometimes it’s powerful to quiet the music and just hear a crowd of voices.  But you know your crowd.  Are they the type that will keep singing passionately?  Or will that make them quiet down?  Think about how you want those types of moments to play out.

Finally, some songs just don’t “stick.”  Some new songs will fall flat and people won’t be into them.  Some weeks, the mood or vibe might not be what you wanted.  Sometimes it might be a good idea to shake things up by stopping to sing a capella, go off script and play an old favorite that wasn’t planned, or simply stop and pray and then start again.  People are forgiving and sometimes a moment like that actually ends up inspiring people to get into it more.

 


Practical Tips for Worship Leaders – part 1

Leading a worship service in any setting is tough.  I can’t sing to save my life, but somehow I got suckered into leading worship one time and it was terrifying.  But I’ve sat in many different types and styles of worship services and want to offer some tips to help worship leaders connect with people in the congregation.  It should go without saying that worship is supposed to be all about God.  So I won’t address the spiritual side since that should be obvious.  Here are some practical tips that might help you, especially if you’re new to leading worship.

Understanding your people

I realize a lot of worship leaders aren’t paid full-time and have to deal with jobs, family and other things throughout the week just like the rest of us.  Even so, the people you’re leading are thinking and feeling a lot different from you throughout the week.  You are probably already aware but we can always use reminders.

You:  eat, sleep and breathe music, are up to date on the latest songs, hear all the covers from different artists and memorize the music and lyrics.

Us: most people like music, too, but not many are as up to date on the latest worship songs as you are.  So be patient if we’re not as familiar or as excited about the songs.  We’ll get there, especially the more the songs become familiar.

You: you’ve been listening to the songs on repeat, have them memorized, rehearsed multiple times, prayed through the lyrics and are touched and inspired by the message and the melody.

Us: we’ve spent our week with the various pressures and stresses of life and are lucky if we’ve had a few worship songs on the car radio or in the background while getting dinner together.  We might need some help to “get into it.”  And we want to, that’s why we look to you!  Be patient with us.

Introducing new songs

Give us time.  The first time you play a new song, you’re very familiar from memorizing, rehearsing and praying through it.  We’re staring at the PowerPoint screen to figure out what the lyrics are, what the song is about, and to get a feel for it.  You might want to take a moment to “teach” the song to us by playing the chorus once and guiding us in how to sing it, and then start.

Also, play it multiple weeks in a row.  After a while, it will become familiar and could end up being our new favorite song.  If you play it one week and don’t come back to it for a while, it may not get a chance to stick.

2 songs that should be included in every service

1. Something familiar – so people can close their eyes or not have to read the lyrics and can sing along a lot easier.  It doesn’t have to be the song that’s popular now, it could be an old favorite from months or even years ago.

2. Something catchy – a lot of songs these days are endless prose;  all verse and no chorus.  The lyrics are beautiful but we stare at the screen reading them like a poem set to music.  If a song like that is powerful and you want to include it, go for it.  But please make sure you also play something we can sing along with.  You may be sick of “How Great Is Our God” or “Blessed Be Your Name” but when you play something with an easy chorus, ever notice that just about everyone chimes in (and gets more passionate)?

More to come in my next post…


Pastors should be more like rappers

Here’s a food for thought type of post.  Obviously, there are things about rappers pastors should not emulate and we certainly don’t want unskilled rhymers attempting corny raps on stage.  Leave that to the experienced.  But if you think about the culture of hip hop and the things people value about rappers…there are some lessons that Christian pastors could learn.

  1. Rappers aren’t afraid to tell it like it is, even if it’s controversial or makes waves.  Didn’t Jesus do that with the religious leaders of his day?
  1. Identify with struggle and adversity.  The most compelling rappers have a story of what they had to go through to get where they are.
  1. Creativity/setting trends:  they have their finger on the pulse of their culture, both reflecting it and setting trends (creating new slang words & phrases, clothing styles, dances, etc.)  Influence on mainstream culture.  It doesn’t sit back and copy anything else in the world.  It is aggressive and forward thinking in creating something new.
  1. Collaboration with other artists.  Having a certain guest on a track helps it sell and get popular (work together with others! imagine that)
  1. Not afraid to call out “the industry.”  They are held accountable by their peers to maintain street cred and not sell out because of money or fame.
  1. Keep it real, transparency.  We know their stories.  Their stories are vital.  Where they are from, what kind of obstacles they’ve faced in life.  We know their faults, their sins, they are open about crimes and jail time.  Many glorify it but not all.  Many acknowledge their past and talk about improving their lives and encouraging others to improve their lives
  1. No faking, authenticity is a must.  People can see right through gimmicks and phonies.
  1. Honoring the past, those that paved the way.  Often references to old school rappers, R&B, those that came before them.
  1. Mentoring, bringing others along with you as you succeed.  Many rappers give younger or up-and-coming artists a chance and help connect them to the industry, and they go on to have their own success.  Yet many pastors are selfish and afraid that younger pastors will steal their limelight and are afraid of becoming irrelevant.
  1. Focus on family and friends.  They talk about their friends, they have an entourage, they put their grandmothers in music videos.  They know who was with them as they struggled, and now that they are succeeding, they don’t forget their loved ones.  How many of you actually know your pastor?  Does he/she slip away to a green room after the sermon?




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