The Past and Future of Christian Weddings

The tradition used to be that when a couple got married the father of the bride would give money or property to the groom called a dowry. This was a great way to help a couple getting started in their lives, but it also created a problem. Cheapskates would move from town to town getting married, collecting dowries, and then leaving their brides to collect money in another place.

Memchu_weddingAs a defense against this, weddings would happen in two stages. First, the couple would be betrothed—normally on the steps of the church. Then there would be a waiting period as people in the family sent letters or visited friends and family in neighboring towns to see if that person had previously been married. They may also talk to the groom’s hometown to verify his references. Then, at the wedding proper, families would report on their findings.

We still see evidence of these traditions in our wedding services today. First, when the couple comes forward, there is often part of the service that happens at the steps of the sanctuary. Have you ever noticed that the questions of intent are very similar to the wedding vows? That is because our service today is a blending of what used to be 2 services—a betrothal and a wedding.

Second, the pastor will sometimes as something like, “If anyone has any reason why these two should not be married then speak now or however hold their peace.” This is a holdover from the process of checking up on the groom. This is the point in the service where people could stand up and report back on their investigation of his background.

Over time, the need to track weddings has become more important for the government to be involved in. Things like pensions, social security, life insurance, and custody battles require clearly delineated legal marriages. Also, the means to track marriages has developed. When a couple wants to get married they get a marriage license where the state confirms that they are both eligible for marriage (i.e. not currently married to anyone else). All of this is tracked on computers today.

So there was a time when the government did not have the systems in place or the need to track marriages so closely. Now they do. We are left with a process where pastors work for the state when they do weddings.

wedding

This leads us to an important question: why are pastors still working for the state as part of the wedding process? Pastors are not presiding over a legal agreement. Pastors are presiding over a covenant agreement. There is no other area where we work for the government in this way.

Now we are in a situation where many Christians are upset that the government is changing the definition of marriage, but too few are asking why the church is in a position where the government gets to define how we look at marriage. A government cannot be expected to define marriage the way conservative Christians do.

I wonder if it is time to separate civil marriage from Christian weddings. What would it look like if people, when they went to get their marriage license, actually got married in the eyes of the state? Then the wedding covenant could be made separately before God and the church if people wanted that. This would allow churches to define weddings in their context the way they see fit and would allow government to define legal marriage the way they see fit.

What problems do you see with this idea? Do you have alternative ides?

10 Tips for Doing Funerals

1. Keep it short. After a loss and a couple of days of viewing hours and company, the family is exhausted. Say what needs to be said and not more.
2. Prepare. Get the service and the meditation ready and down on paper. I can often wing prayers and preach off of just a few notes but during funerals I write it all out. I don’t want to get wordy or get caught up in the emotions of the funeral. I want to be crisp and be free to focus on the family.
3. Remember (and remind the family) of the purpose of the funeral. The funeral is not really for the person who has passed. They aren’t really there. It is to comfort those left behind. I have had to coach families about this as we talk about the service. It is not a big “ode to the deceased” either. The real purpose of a Christian funeral is to praise God for the gift of the life of this person.
4. Get 1 or 2 short eulogies. I like to have those picked ahead. I tell them 2-3 minutes figuring they will go over. I also suggest they write it ahead so I can read them if they are unable. This also helps keep them shorter. This also helps me not have to do a eulogy myself (especially if I don’t know the person) and lets me focus on the sermon.
5. Avoid open microphones. These can be disastrous. I like to have a luncheon and encourage stories to be told there. If you have to do an open mic time then don’t let go of the mic or leave the pulpit. That way you can take it back if needed.
6. Be aware of non-Christians but not hyper-sensitive. I figure that if you ask me as a pastor to do the service then you are going to get the faith stuff. I can tone it down for more secular families, but I don’t do that very much. This is a time when even non-Christians expect a Christian pastor to say Christian things. This is not really a time for evangelism either. That can be manipulative.
7. Leave your theology at the door. The funeral is not the place to develop or expound on your view of salvation, heaven, or predestination. This is not a seminary paper. Also, don’t get too locked-in to your preferred Bible translation. Funerals are a great time to check The Message or the Jerusalem Bible to see if they might be more accessible to those in grief.
8. Error on the side of hope and grace. Sometimes in a funeral I can’t always tell if the person had a genuine Christian faith. Are they really in heaven? I choose in those services to talk and preach as if God has done a work to save that person even if I am not sure they every bought into that.
9. Get the right tone. A funeral is partly sad because there is a loss. But it is also a time to celebrate the life of the person. Normally by the time the funeral arrives people have cried enough and they are ready to celebrate the life a little more. Acknowledge the sadness but also try to move people toward gratitude for the spouse/parent/child/friend that they had. Don’t underestimate the power of music to help you set the tone.
10. Own these 2 books. They are great resources. The Funeral Encyclopedia is a little dated but is so good. The Hardest Sermons You’ll Ever Have to Preach: Help from Trusted Preachers for Tragic Times is a book of sermons for difficult situations. It has given me a lot of ideas for funeral meditations and inspired some of my funeral prayers. 

The Best Funeral Poem in my Library

This is the best funeral poem that I have ever read. I have used it in most of my funerals and it always lands with those present. I think it captures both the sadness and the joy that can be swirling around during that time of loss. I actually make a habit of taking copies of this poem with me so that I can hand them out after the service. I hope it can be helpful to those who have suffered a loss but also helpful to my fellow pastors.

casketWhen Tomorrow Starts Without Me   attributed to  David M. Roman

When tomorrow starts without me And I’m not there to see;
If the sun should rise and find your eyes All filled with tears for me.
I wish so much you wouldn’t cry The way you did today;
While thinking of the many things We didn’t get to say.

I know how much you love me As much as I love you;
And each time that you think of me, I know you’ll miss me too.
But when tomorrow starts without me Please try to understand,
That an angel came and called my name And took me by the hand.

She said my place was ready In heaven far above;
And that I’d have to leave behind, All those I dearly love.
But as I turned to walk away, A tear fell from my eye;
For all my life, I’d always thought I didn’t want to die.

I had so much to live for, So much yet to do;
It seemed almost impossible, That I was leaving you.
I thought of all the yesterdays, The good ones and the bad;
I thought of all the love we shared, And all the fun we had.

If I could relive yesterday Just even for awhile,
I’d say goodbye and kiss you And maybe see you smile.
But then I fully realized That this could never be;
For emptiness and memories Would take the place of me.

And when I thought of worldly things I might miss come tomorrow;
I thought of you, and when I did, My heart was filled with sorrow.
But when I walked through heaven’s gates I felt so much at home;
When God looked down and smiled at me From His great golden throne.

He said, “This is eternity And all I’ve promised you;
Today your life on earth is past, But here it all starts anew.”
“I promise no tomorrow, But today will always last;
And since each day’s the same day, There’s no longing for the past.”

“But you have been so faithful, So trusting and so true;
Though at times you did do things, You knew you shouldn’t do.”
“But you have been forgiven And now at last you’re free;
So won’t you take my hand And share my life with me?”

So when tomorrow starts without me, Don’t think we’re far apart
For every time you think of me, I’m right here in your heart

 

Timid and Complacent Christianity

We have a timid and complacent Christianity. We work to fly under the radar. Don’t offend anyone. Don’t get labelled as one of those “Jesus Freaks.” Keep your personal views out of your public life.

But if the story is true and Jesus comes back tomorrow then our all posturing and political correctness is going to look very foolish.

Someday I believe I am going to stand before God and answer for my life. I will be asked specifically about the churches I pastor in my life and I am going to have to answer for the way I led my family. I am responsible for those things. I steward those things.

You too will stand before God someday and answer for the things he put in your care.

Did you lead your family in a way that equipped them to find and follow God’s will?
Did you have friendships where you really added strength and grace to others?
Did you go to work every day and try to bring God praise with how hard you worked and what your produced?
Did you steward your money in a way that was wise so that you could be as generous as possible?
Did you make your church a place where people were cared for and God was glorified?
Did you take care of your body as if it really was a temple?
Did you develop your gifts, passions and abilities?
If you had a heart for something did you cultivate that passion into action?

The American church has been in a very comfortable place. We have had the privilege of being the dominant voice. But no more. The world has changed.

The world of tomorrow will demand a more resolute and devoted church. It will require Christians to take seriously the holy task of stewarding their lives. I think this may be jarring for some in our churches.

We Like Growth Without Change

What happened to the church? There was a time when our pews and parking lots were full. When the question was “What church do you go to?” and not “Do you go to church?” When Christians got asked opinions on the news of the day. You could not be president of the bank in town unless you were a member of one of the main churches in town.

Many church members today mourn the loss of “the good old days.” The fuller sanctuary at Easter or Christmas Eve only helps to bolster the frustration. Many people want their churches to be bigger and more important.

At the same time that people want this growth they often do not want to change in order to see this growth. What they would really like is for the world to change back into the world where their church worked. Or, if some were honest, what they really want is for people to come and help pay for the church to continue as it is.

So we try some little things. Maybe if we hire a young pastor then young people will come. Maybe we need lyrics on the screen. Maybe if more people knew about our bake sale they would come to it.

The world is not going back. In fact, I think that it is only going to change more in the future. We need more than a younger pastor or a projector. We need to rethink church. We need to put everything we currently do under a microscope to ask if it is really essential to the life of the church. And we need to try a bunch of new things. Most of these new things won’t work but we need a lot of failure in order to find the things that will work.

We like growth without change, but they seem to always go together.

 

Every Pastor Should Have and Keep this Book

I think that every pastor should keep a Pastoral Record Book. You can get a Pastoral Record book at Amazon.com. In it are pages for you to record baptisms, new members, sermons preached, lectures given, capital campaigns run, and a number of other items. I have kept one since before I was ordained and, though I am always a couple months behind, have a record of these things.

I think this is helpful for a couple of reasons.
1. You can’t always see your slow and steady progress day to day.
2. Sometimes people want to know information about when a funeral was or when their child was baptized and you have that information.
3. You can double-check your preaching to make sure you have a good variety. For example–are you favoring the New Testament? Are you avoiding deeper theological sermons?

Most importantly, someday, at the end of my ministry, there is going to be a record to pass on to my children. They are going to be able to look at it and see how God worked through me over the years. I am praying that this will be an inspiration to them and a testimony to God’s faithfulness.

I think this is important for every pastor to have.

 

10 Tips for More Creative Preaching PART 2

 

This is part 2 of a 2 part blog.

6. Ask- what image do I need to drive home? Is there an image that is the crux of the text? Is there a metaphor that captures the essence of your message? Learn to find that, build your sermon around that, and leave that as the last thought I the sermon. For example, I think the Prodigal Son is carried by the two images of a father running to a lost son and of a father begging his elder son to come into the party. Those images were my conclusion to that sermon.

7. Find a way to physically act in a way that will make this come alive. I one time preached about how God is not limited by our expectations and demands on him. The phrase I kept using in writing the sermon was that God would not stay in our box. I finally thought of actually preaching the sermon while standing in a box. At one point I kicked my way out of the box in very dramatic fashion. This was a way of physically embodying the point of the sermon.

8. Ask- how can people respond to this sermon? Sometimes a message demands a response by people. If we can give them the opportunity to do that then we can make the sermon more impactful. I was preaching about Paul’s metaphors of bearing each other’s burdens and that each should carry their own loads. When people entered the sanctuary they were given a brick (or part of a brick) to hold. After the sermon, as people came up for communion, they laid their bricks down to signify their own struggle to do what Paul is talking about. The response carried the sermon.

9. Don’t build the sermon around points. The modern way of preaching was to be logical and build your sermon around 3 points. You got a bonus if all the points started with the same letter or spelled some kind of word. I suggest that for more creativity you should build your sermon around metaphors. Paul and James do this quite a lot, as does John though he is more subtle with them.

10. Don’t read the text in worship before the sermon. Ask where in the sermon you can read the text to have the most impact. I sometimes read my sermon in the middle of the sermon, sometimes I read it slowly throughout the sermon. I have even read the sermon at the end. I know of churches that do the scripture reading at the beginning of the service so that the entire worship service is seen through the text. Experiment.

Bonus: Change where the sermon is in your service. I think that some sermons should be earlier in the service. Some should be later. I have even done sermons in two or three parts throughout the service and let them build on one another.

10 Tips for More Creative Preaching PART 1

This is part 1 of a 2 part blog.

1. Start with an oddball series or a difficult text. Last summer I preached a sermon looking at food metaphors in the Bible. This led me to all kinds of great themes and texts. I am now preaching parables and paying special attention to the less familiar parables.

2. Work ahead on your preaching schedule. If you spend Monday or Tuesday picking a text and topic for your sermon then you are already behind in your study and you will run out of time to be creative on how you put together the sermon. Have your sermons picked ahead so you can be thinking about them and so that you don’t waste time picking them the week of the sermon. I should also add that I plan about 3-4 months ahead and I normally leave a couple of blanks so that I can respond to God’s leading.

3. Prime the pump. A number of my sermons are inspired out of other books or lectures I am reading or listening to. This way I start with a good idea or perspective on a topic that I can study in the Bible and make my own.

4. Marinate in the text before you pick up a commentary. This is the opposite of “priming the pump” but it is sometimes also helpful. Read the text a few times and make notes about it before you look at commentaries. What do you notice in the text? What phrases, details, and images stand out to you?

5. Work ahead on your research. I like to do all my study on the text on Monday and Tuesday. I want to give me a day to sit on my ideas before I write the sermon. That gives me Thursday to write the thing. By researching early I give myself space to be more creative on how to structure and deliver the message.

What is your Panera Bread?

I am writing this blog from Panera Bread. I call it my “other office.” When I come into Panera I can just sit down and crank out work. I also like to do this at Starbucks, though I can do work even longer if I can have an actual meal.panera

When I go to one of these places, I can just get in the zone. I have the ability to be creative and work hard there. An hour at Panera is like 2 or 3 in my office or 4 or 5 at home. Something about that space triggers my brain to go into work mode. It also clears my head of stress and worries when I sit down there (most of the time).

Space is important. We cannot help as people but to be influenced by what is around us. I think this is why Jesus goes to gardens so much in the Gospels. I think He found them to be good spaces to think and to pray.

It is not good to use this space all the time. Not only is it expensive but it also has diminishing returns. If you use the space too much it becomes less special and more ordinary. That is why I have several spots I like. (My third spot is Taco Bell. I love their breakfast and very few people come in and sit down. Everybody uses the drive thru.)

I especially love to go to Panera on Sunday morning before I preach. I find that reviewing my sermon there helps me to really remember it and preach it with deeper emotions.

What is your Panera Bread? What is your creative space?

Is it God’s will or Mine?

I have never heard God’s voice. I have had plenty of times when I wish I would have, but I never had. I think that most people have not heard the voice of God, though I know some have. Despite never hearing God’s voice, there have been plenty of times when I felt the leading of God.

When I started dating my wife I knew she was the one for me. When I was thinking about seminary I got a big scholarship that made the decision a very clear one.

This is one of the challenging things about God’s leading. God does not often lead with a voice from the sky or a message in the mail. He often leads through circumstances or through our own thoughts and feelings. The challenging part is knowing what is really God’s leading instead of circumstances, thoughts, and feelings that we need to overcome to follow God’s leading. Put simply, is it god’s will or mine?

So how do you know? I am not sure there are any rules. But I have found a couple of things to be important. First, don’t make decisions in a hurry. Try to take time to sort out what God’s will really is. Second, clear your head. Step away from the problem. Step away from the business of life. Go hiking or spend a day away so that you can discern God’s will away from all kinds of other voices. Third, draw close to God. Dive into your Bible. Pray a lot. These disciplines help tune you into God’s voice above other things.

 

Why Snakes, Turtles, and a Tortoise are Important for my Ministry

So I am a weird person. Since I was a kid I loved and kept turtles as pets. Eventually I added tortoises, and since seminary we have gotten 3 very docile snakes and 2 lizards. I love keeping these animals, caring for them, and working with them. As a family we often go to reptile shows to see other kinds of reptiles. DSC_0016

A while back I was talking to my friend and colleague Chris Thomas about my love of reptiles. He pointed out that a lot of pastors he knew did some kind of hobby where they got to produce and see the fulfilment of and fruit of their labor. I think he is right. Many pastors I know like to do things like garden or brew beer.

Ministry can be challenging because we don’t always get the fruit of our labor. We do some things that never bear fruit. Some of the fruit is hidden. Some fruit does not blossom until years later.

My dad did a lot of work at Presbytery and doing consulting and retreats with other churches during his years of ministry. I think he too wanted to see some progress.

So I keep reptiles. It is nothing like ministry and provides a nice escape for me. More importantly, I get to see the fruit of my own labor.

What are your fulfilling hobbies?

Parables are Challenging my Simple

I have been preaching the parables in the second half of the summer. These have not been easy sermons to preach. This past week I preached the parable of the tenacious widow and the unjust judge from Luke 18:1-8. You can listen to it HERE. If you have never heard of it then I am not surprised. I seriously doubt if you have ever heard a sermon about it.

The challenge with this parable is not understanding the story. It is, like most of the parables, a very simple story. The challenge is that Luke gives an intro to the parable that says the parable is about prayer and not losing heart but then after the parable Jesus teaches about stuff unrelated to prayer or not losing heart. What does the parable mean? How do we apply it to our lives?

But the challenge of understanding the parables is only a surface issue. The real issue with the parables is actually about you and I want our lives to be—SIMPLE. I think things simple. I like 3 point sermons with one clear challenge at the end.

But the Bible is rarely simple. Life is rarely simple. If you can highlight the meaning of a parable or a life event in a neat and tidy sentence then you have probably missed the real meaning. Parables are meant to grab you and stick with you. You have to wrestle with them. The can still be teaching you things a long time later. Life is the same way.

 

Why I am so Tired after Preaching

Preaching wears me out. I am always so tired on Monday mornings. I am even worse Sunday afternoons. I only preach one service. I can’t imagine preaching 4-5 times the way some pastors do. Good preaching takes all of the pastor’s abilities and energies.

  • Preaching is physically draining. You are projecting your voice, using gestures, standing or walking around.
  • Preaching is mentally draining. You have to be totally focused, speaking clearly, knowing where you are going and remembering your sermon.
  • Preaching is emotional Draining. You have to put your emotions in the sermon, feel the stories and the ideas, and let that emotion be expressed in your voice and in your facial expressions.
  • Spiritually draining – Good preaching means being open to and following the Holy Spirit as well as connecting with your people’s needs, wounds, and challenges.

Some sermons are more draining than others. A difficult text, an emotional topic, or a more animated sermon means the pastor will be more exhausted. It is especially draining when the pastor has a personal story or talks about something that hits close to home in the preacher’s personal life.

Pastors have to learn to take care of themselves. For me, this means resting a lot on Sundays after church, staring Mondays slowly, and not scheduling demanding things for Sundays. When I started preaching regularly I became a huge fan of the NFL. It was a great way for me to rest and relax on Sundays.

For Pastors: What do you do to recover from preaching?

For Church Members: Remember to pray for your pastors.

The Essentialism of Nonessentials

I just finished the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeon. This books really got me thinking. The book is about stripping away what is less important in your life and pouring yourself into what is most important or where you can have the biggest impact. It talks a lot about prioritizing, learning to say “no” to things that are less important, and how to be radically disciplined about how you spend your time and energy. It also challenged me to get rid of some clutter in my life.

I think this is an important lesson for people to get. As a Christian I think this is especially important because God has plans and purposes for us in our lives. It is a shame when people cannot say yes to God’s will because they didn’t say no to credit cards or poor life choices. I think it is sad for the Kingdom of God to miss our on our contributions because we are unorganized and undisciplined. Remember Jesus challenging Martha because her sister had made a better choice?

This book was very thought provoking for me. I both recommend it and think I will go back and reread some chapters.

At the same time, I think there is an important caveat to this discussion for Christians. Sometimes in God’s Kingdom the nonessential things is the most essential things. I know as a pastor that some interruptions are just interruptions and some interruptions are the most important thing I can be doing. How many times did Jesus not do the most essential thing and instead go to places where he would have random conversation or escape for prayer when he could have been building his congregation?

For Christians, the most essential thing is to follow the Holy Spirit’s leading. Sometimes that means we need structure and discipline. Sometimes that means looking for God in the distractions.

New Metrics for the Church

The church has measured itself for years on “nickels and noses.” What is your attendance and how big is your budget? These are not great indicators of church health. I know big and wealthy churches that are not very faithful to the Gospel. I know small and struggling churches that are very faithful to the Gospel.

This got me thinking: if finances and attendance are not good indicators of church health, then what metrics can we use? These are very unscientific and need to be evaluated alongside of the usual metrics. Here are some questions that a church can use to think through their effectiveness.

  • How have individual congregants show spiritual growth in the last year?
  • When someone in the church gets sick or is in the hospital, how many church members respond with visits or cards?
  • How many meals did your church share together last year and how deep was the conversation at those meals?
  • Can you tell a story that exemplifies the essence of God’s call for your ministry from the last 6 months?
  • How many non-Christians did you interact with last year?
  • How is your community better because your church is in it?
  • How many church members have shared a meal with their neighbors this summer?
  • If someone asked a person in the community that does not go to your church where it was and what it was like, what response would they get?
  • How many things did your church try and fail at in the last year? How can you try things so that you fail more in the coming year?

My Love/Hate Relationship with Numbers in Ministry

Yesterday I posted about my struggle with wanting my ministry to be bigger. Why do we feel that kind of pressure in the church? Why do we want to be successful? Why do we define success so much in terms of size of congregation and bank accounts?

Why do we do this in our personal lives as well? If someone asks how I am doing in life I would refer to the health of my family and then move quickly to the prestige and financial stability of my work. Why is my identity so quickly wrapped up in what I do and what I make?

Why can’t we judge ourselves based on the quality of our relationships or the generosity that we live with? Why can’t we evaluate our lives or our churches based on the impact we have on the world around us?

In many cases there are real-world reasons why we get caught in a game of numbers. Numbers are not without significance. Numbers can give us a realistic understanding of what is happening. We can fool ourselves into believing things are better than they are when we consider how we feel about something like worship or ministry. But if we have actual numbers it can force us to face the truth.

Numbers can also be critical in some circumstances. In my own context we are working to support full-time ministry by covering some of our operating expenses with reserves. These reserves are not unlimited. If we do not grow enough to cover our expenses then we will have to cut expenses and in our case it means going to a part-time or shared pastor. The pressure to grow is real and is time-sensitive.

The Bible is not opposed to numbers. At Pentecost around 3,000 people were added to their numbers. Somebody thought it was important enough to count. We even have an entire book called Numbers where Moses spends a lot of time counting and organizing the Israelites.

We want more people in our churches not just because we want to be successful but also because we want people to meet and live for Jesus. We want money in the plates not just so that we can pay our bills but also so we can do more ministry and be involved in more missions.

I have a love/hate relationship with numbers in ministry. We need them and I track them pretty closely. But they are not everything. The challenge is that they often become everything.

How do we do ministry and live life sensitive to the metrics but not obsessed with them?

Small is OK

Last week was Vacation Bible School and my church. It was a great time. If I could brag on my church for a moment, we do an awesome VBS. It is well put together and fun. We are decorated to the max and we do everything we can to make it a special week. The kids that come have a fantastic time and their parents are so grateful.

I am always a little frustrated, however, that more kids don’t come. We have about 20-25 kids a night. Now I realize that a lot of churches are not even doing VBS anymore and few have the large numbers of 20 years ago. Still, it is frustrating sometimes.

Sunday morning can be the same thing for me. I see lots of space in the pews and I can think of many people that need to be there. I try to “bring the heat” every Sunday but it gets frustrating sometimes.

As I was thinking about the numbers at VBS I was also studying for a sermon on several of the kingdom parables of Matthew 13. One of them says:

 He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (Matthew 13:31-32 ESV)

God’s Kingdom starts small and grows slowly. Why, then, do I want larger numbers of “nickels and noses.” I hope that I want them because I want to touch more people with the gospel, but I fear that sometimes it is my own pride and ambition that really drives my desire for bigger.

But what if the very nature of Kingdom is that it is small?