Why the Bible is not “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth”

I have heard people acronym that the B.I.B.L.E. stands for “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” But that description bothers me for a number of reasons.

First, is it really basic? If it is so basic, why do we have so much trouble understanding it? Why do we so often disagree on a fundamental level about what it says or what we should do about it? The Bible is actually a very complicated library of books that tells stories to get its point across. It is not basic.

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3 Shifts in our Understanding of What the Bible is

This is the first in series of blogs I am doing about the Bible in the Christian Faith.

What does the Bible mean for Christians? I am convinced anymore that it does not mean very much.

Barna Trends 2017 reports that “more than half of U.S. adults believe it is either the actual, literal word of God or the inspired word of God without error. Nearly half read the Bible at least once a month and three out of five say they wish they spent more time reading it.” (pg. 140) While these are better numbers than one might expect, there is a growing skepticism towards the Bible. Continue reading

The Soundtrack of the Church

In any movie or TV show, the soundtrack is tremendously important. The songs chose for the background of the story set the tone for the movie. In many ways, they are critical to the story. The best soundtracks tell the stories themselves.

Let’s think about the famous soundtrack of Star Wars composed by John Williams. This soundtrack is instantly recognizable and immediately takes the mind back to the story. We recognize the theme song, and we automatically think of those credits scrolling across the screen off into the distance in space. That song has a grandeur and excitement to it that sets the tone for the whole movie.    

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Churches with Writer’s Block

People and organizations are living stories. Since live moves in days and season, it can feel like a movie or a play. Normally, the story naturally moves as we accomplishing things, try things, and learn and grow along the way. Sometimes, however, the story stops. As Graham Standish puts it, a church can get “something akin to writer’s block.”

Numerous obstacles can stop the story. Sometimes the church has conflict or crisis that consumes the story. Sometimes the church fails at writing the next chapter and loses their confidence to keep writing. Sometimes they are so focused on all their problems that they can’t see any way forward. Sometimes the church cannot agree on what the next chapter should be. Continue reading

My Favorite Story to Use at Funerals

Adapted from The Funeral Encyclopedia by Charles L. Wallis

Harold E. Johnson tells a story of two strangers, a small boy and an older man, fishing from the banks of the Mississippi.  As time passed they discovered that, although the fishing was rather poor, the conversation was good. By the time the sun began to sink at the end of the day they had talked of many things.  Around the bend up river from them came a large river boat.

250px-Mark_Twain_Riverboat

When the boy saw the boat, he began to shout and to wave his arms so that he could attract the attention of those on board.  The man watched for some time and then told the boy he was foolish. “That boat is on its way down river to some unknown place and it surely won’t pull over to pick up some small boy.”

But suddenly the boat began to slow down and then it moved toward the river bank.  To the man’s amazement, the boat came near enough to the shore that a gang-plank could be lowered.

The boy entered the boat and, turning to his new friend on shore, said: “I am not foolish, mister.  You see, my father is captain of this boat and we’re going to a new home up the river.”

Sometimes life is like that.  There are times when the ship of death makes an unexpected stop along the river of life and, to our surprise, picks up a passenger.  We do not always understand the timing.  It can come very unexpectedly to us or sometimes it can seem to take it’s time.

I wish I could say something that would take away the sting of death. I wish the sadness would go away. But I want to assure you of one thing:  “My father” is the captain of that boat, and it is heading to a new home.  Death is not the end, but it is the beginning of a new adventure. And the only way that the sting of death with be no more is if you trust in the Father.

 

Why You Can’t Afford to Ignore your Church Building

I am a firm believer that our lives our like stories. We tend to embody the story that we see ourselves in. In other words, we tend to dress, live in homes, and drive cars that fit our story about ourselves. We see this in people who are really depressed. Often they do not take care of themselves. They are disheveled and unkempt. They don’t shower as much or pick up after themselves. As people get healthy and come out of depression they tend to physically look healthier.Church Front

Our appearance not only reflects how we feel but it can also change how we feel. If we are feeling down, we can dress up. Or if we need to relax we can put on comfortable clothes. If people want to get in shape they often go out and buy athletic clothing. This is not only important for exercise, it also helps us play the part we are wanting to play in the story of us being physically fit.

When I look at many of our church buildings, I see that they perfectly reflect how many churches feel. The buildings look depressed and broken down. They often smell funny and have firmly established cobwebs and decade old dust piles. There is junk piled not just in every closet but in every corner and on every shelf. The front of the sanctuary is so cluttered that it shouts out—“We are disorganized and random.”

The effect for fancy churches can be just as troubling. These churches can tell the story that we think we are important and we care a lot about people’s opinion. The resulting insight is that only people who are wealthy and clean can come here.

You may not realize or think about the story your building is telling, but your visitors will. So it is time to get intentional about your buildings.

  1. Your building can give you clues about how your congregation feels about itself. Try to look around your church property and ask what story your building is telling. This might give you insights into where your church is struggling. Is the nursery dirty? Are offices neglected? Or is everything in need of help?
  2. Your building can help teach people to care about visitors (or not). I am a firm believer that the church exists primarily for the people that are not there. Your building can get in the way of that, or you can use the building to help create that value. Ask your people to start thinking about the building from the perspective of someone who does not already go there. This can help people be aware of the world.
  3. Your building can help change how people feel about themselves. Just like dressing up can make you feel better, changing your property can make your church feel different. Can you clean things up? Paint? Add some banners to plain walls? Any little thing can built momentum for your church.
  4. Your building can improve (or hurt) your ministry. For example, well over half of communication is non-verbal. Clutter communicates that we are disorganized, unclean, and unprofessional. If you declutter the front of your sanctuary your music and preaching will probably sound better and be well received just because people can and will pay more attention. Also, do you have a social hall that an outside organization or ministry would want to meet in? Could improving your meeting space help create partnerships in your community?

One other areas that I see churches hurt themselves in the area of temperature. Many churches, to save money, try to use the temperature controls as little as possible. That means that the church is freezing cold in the winter and roasting hot in the summer. This is a mistake. It tells the story that your church is cheap and unwelcoming. It may save you some money immediately, but it also costs you money. What people will end up doing is avoiding coming to church when it is too hot or too cold. When people miss church, they often do not make up their giving later. That means that you are costing yourself attendance and giving in order to save a few bucks. Turn your heat up in the winter. Put in window air conditioners or good fans in the summer. Tell the story that you care about the people more than the dollars. It will pay off for you.

In the last year at my church we have done a lot of little things to make our building look better. A new roof and a new boiler was costly, but most of the other things we did cost little to no money. We added banners, had some cleaning days, got rid of a lot of stuff, added window air conditioners, and did some painting. I have been surprised how much these little things have impacted the feel of our church. What might you be able to try?

Leading with Story Pt 4: Leading with your own Story

This is Part 4 of a blog series developing the idea of Leading with Story in churches.

I have been developing the idea that story is not just a part of preaching but could also be thought of as the essential material of leadership. Here is a key to doing that: Leading with story begins with your own story. You will always have trouble being a Story Pastor if you do not understand your own story. Your story not only shapes who you are and how you approach things, but it can also help you develop other stories. Let me explain how that works.

the story of my life

As a Story Pastor you are always crafting and working with lots of different stories—the church’s, the individual members’, the community’s, God’s… There is always a danger that you can lose sight of your own story in the midst of these other stories. You can lose your own distinct calling, passion, conflicts, and successes. This can be dangerous for a few reasons. Your identity can become too tied to that of those around you. If this happens then it will warp how you feel about yourself and your work and how you find and follow God’s call for your own story. As Christians, we believe that our jobs are never just our jobs but also they are callings. They are part of who we are and part of our stories. Yet we must be careful that they do not consume our story. Our calling is a part of us but it is far from the whole of us.

Not only can you lose your story in all these other stories, but if that happens you will lose one of your best insights into understanding the other stories around you. The story of the church has to be discerned and written as a community since it is a conglomeration of the people. It is much easier to discern and follow your own story because it is simpler. If you can understand your own story, then you can have clues as to the larger story of your organization. You can begin to ask questions that help you compare and contrast what you are feeling to what is going on in the larger story. What excites you about a new idea? Why don’t you like this person? Where do you feel that you are on purpose or not on purpose in your organization? These kinds of questions can be hints as to the larger story and how to write the next chapter, but they can only be discerned if you have enough distinct understanding of your own story to compare the stories and know the differences.

It works well when your story and your church or organization’s story are at least parallel. Sometimes, however, the plotlines begin to separate. This could be a sign that one or both of the stories are not right and need to be written. The point where your story and your congregation’s story begin to diverge can also be a sign that God may be calling you somewhere else. You can only see this if you have a clear picture of your own story.

One of the other images that I like for the Story Pastor is the idea of a story-weaver. I think that pastors and leaders weave all of these stories with God’s story to create a tapestry of a Church’s story. I think that God’s story and your story form the base of the pattern. As a pastor, I live closest to those stories. The other story-strings take a lot of time and group input to develop, but I can study God’s story and reflect on my own story daily.  I am not saying that you have to be constantly telling your story to your people, though you should sometimes.  But you do need to know your story and use it to inform your storytelling.

If you have lost your personal story in your work then I suggest a few things:

  1. Answer some reflective questions: What stories of your life have defined you? If you wanted someone to know you, what stories would you include in your bio? What is most important to you in your life?
  2. Dive into a pastoral biography or a Biblical character and see what of their story resonates with you.
  3. Ask a good and honest friend from outside the stories you are consumed in to help you. Find out from them how they see you and what from your story they see as defining for you.

What other thoughts do you have on leading with your own story? Why is it important? What makes it difficult? How do you do it consistently?

Leading with Story Pt 3: Story Leadership (or Why I Call Myself a Minister of Story and Sacrament)

This is Part 3 of a blog series developing the idea of Leading with Story in churches.

I have previously developed the problem of confused roles or identifying metaphors for pastors. I have also expressed the importance and power of stories. Now I want to move into the idea of leading with story.

tell me your story
Every person, family, or organization is in the middle of a story. Actually, they are in the middle of multiple stories. We have different areas of our lives with their own stories. We have different parts of the organization or family that have their own stories. These areas are filled with people with their own mix of personal stories that they are living out. We carry our own perspectives and memories of the stories that often differ from others who were supposedly part of the same story. This intricate web of stories are sometimes in unison, sometimes in contrast, and always in flux.

Great leaders lead by shaping and crafting the story of their organization. They use particular language to make the story compelling and use challenges as conflict that pushes the story forward. They are constantly working to shape the story of the organization to its staff (management) and its customers (marketing). They are crafting a compelling story in which everyone wants to play a part. In fact, there is a growing field of narrative leadership or storytelling in business. Companies now have positions in storytelling.

In Christian leadership there is a larger story. This is the story of God, the Greatest Story ever Told, or “the old, old story.” It can also be understood, as my teacher Len Sweet puts it, as “the greatest story never told.” God’s story tells us a lot of things about who we are and who are churches should be. It stands in contrasts to many of the stories that this world tells.

As my friend Graham Standish points out, many churches are living with writers block. They need new stories. In a lot of cases they need to go back and retell the old stories and “the old, old story” to get the current story back on track. It is as if many churches have forgotten or incorrectly remembered the previous chapters of the story they are in. They also need to start intentionally shaping the next few chapters. They need to find new roles in bigger and better stories that will compel the church forward.

I am talking about much more than narrative preaching here. I am wondering what it looks like to see story has the key paradigm and the dominant building block of ministry. I have begun to think of myself as a Story Pastor. Instead of using the classic description of “Ministry of Word and Sacrament,” I have begun to call myself a “Minister of Story and Sacrament.”The_Historian_(The_How_and_Why_Library)

The Story Pastor does his or her work with story as the clay. We begin to shape better stories for our congregations. We counsel people in their stories. We find out the story of our communities. We craft the next chapter of our congregation’s stories. We reenact God’s story every week in worship. We weave multiple stories together and help write better stories. We teach our people to share their stories as testimony for the others.

What do you think about the image of The Story Pastor? How is a Christian leader like a storyteller?

Leading with Story Part 2: We are Storied-Beings

This is Part 2 of a blog series developing the idea of Leading with Story in churches.NathanandDavid

The king had not been honest. He had worked the system to have a man killed so that he could have the dead man’s wife. How could the prophet confront the king without being killed himself? He told him a story. He engaged the king in a story about a man who stole another man’s sheep. When he got to the end the king was angry and the one who had stolen the sheep. “You are the man,” said the prophet, and the king could hardly reply. He was caught by a story.

This is my own rendition of the exchange between David and Nathan in 2 Samuel 12. It shows the power of story. Story has the ability to get past the barriers of our opinions and positions. A story has the power to shape values and spark action. A shared story can create a group or family. Conflicting stories can breed hatred and wars.

If I asked you who you were, you might start with a few facts—name, age, job, birthplace… But pretty soon you would have to start telling stories about your life. Why is that? I think it is because we are fundamentally storied-beings. Our stories define us. We live to create and tell stories. We naturally tell and hear stories. As children we learn the welcome of “Once upon a time” and the invitation of “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” If something happens to us we are driven to tell others. This is why Facebook and Instagram has become so popular: we can all present the stories of our lives through pictures and status updates.

Stories make us human and shape who we are. We love the stories of books, movies, and TV shows. Stories captivate us. They also spread like facts do not. We retell good stories. This is why marketing is now storytelling. Some commercials are still about the products and why you should buy them over others. But the really good marketers are the ones who tell stories in their commercials. They often have no words and have few references to the products. Instead, they engage you in a story.storyteller

Ask yourself these questions:
What kind of story do you see yourself in?
What is the story of your church or organization?
How do you interpret your last few chapters?
What do you think will happen in the next chapter?

Leaders have the ability to use story to their advantage, or if they ignore the power of story a leader may find that they are telling stories somewhere else.

Leading with Story Part 1: The Crisis of Pastoral Imagery

This is Part 1 of a blog series developing the idea of Leading with Story in churches.

Pastors and Christian leaders have a long history of identity crisis. We use a great number of terms like pastor, priest, bishop, or preacher. We have tried on different metaphors throughout history such as priest, shepherd, prophet, physician of souls, pastor, teacher, leader, and counselor. Some of these metaphors are so old that we cannot connect with them without considerable historical work. Others are so wrapped in specific connotations that they represent a truncated view of ministry.

Sheep_with_their_shepherd

Let me give a couple examples. When we think of a pastors as a shepherd we typically mean the specific function of pastoral care. After all, none of us has ever seen a shepherd. We don’t understand what they did when that metaphor was used in the Bible. Shepherding was the metaphor of kings because of the huge responsibility of the task: guide the sheep to different pastures, breed and sell, protect from predators, care for the young and injured, read the weather and the seasons to know where they had to be… The job was so much bigger than we have in mind when we use the term.

Pastors today have been trained to think of themselves primarily as leaders or pastoral counselors. Are these faithful metaphors? Do we lead as a CEO might or do we lead by following Christ? Is it accurate to equate a person’s psychological health with their spiritual health?

It is common to use preacher as a term. This grew out of the Reformation. The challenge is that it makes one function of ministry the defining picture of our work. This is problematic no matter how important that function is.

Maybe every generation or even every individual pastor has to shape their own metaphors. I am still thinking about how that works. But I have observed that our metaphors and identities shape our work and how we feel about our work. If you see yourself as a preacher then you are going to put a premium on the time you spend preparing your sermon. If you see yourself as a counselor then you are going to spend more time counselling people about their mental and emotional challenges.

I think that every metaphor for ministry that we use and live-into for ministry needs to fulfill 2 criteria. The metaphor needs to be faithful to the tradition and the Biblical and historical definition of the work of ministry. The metaphor also needs to be fruitful for ministry. In other words it needs to help the pastor today do his or her work more effectively.

To that end I have been toying and tinkering with the image of pastor as storyteller. Many cultures have had people who officially or unofficially act as storytellers. These people not only told the history of the people, tribe, or community, but they also shaped the ethics, culture, and practices of their particular places. Storytellers today are not like those of old. Today it is the artist, the writer, the director, and the marketer that gets to tell the stories that capture and shape culture.

story road

Doesn’t this kind of storytelling also fit the ministry? Pastors have their own stories, the stories of their churches, the stories of their people, and the stories of their communities. Pastors proclaim what has been called “the greatest story ever told.”

I am planning a dozen or so blogs to explore the idea of Leading with Story. I will look at the growing field of narrative leadership. I will be connecting narrative and story with things like leadership, theology, worship, preaching, counselling, ethics, marketing and hospitality. This is what I am working on in my Doctor of Ministry program and building toward my dissertation. It is my hope that the blog series will help me get things in writing but will also give me feedback and new ideas as people interacts. Please make comments, engage on social media, and let me know your thoughts. I hope that we can help each other in our stories.

Questions for Reflection:
Question #1- What terms do you yourself and the work you do? How does that shape your work?
Question #2- Do you have a particular image that defines your work? Why is that image so powerful for you?

The Christmas Quiz: A fun tool for teaching story and traditions of Christmas

nativity

This is a quiz that I have been tweaking for several years.  It is all about the Christmas story and our Christmas traditions.  Included are the answers with scripture references and details that make this a great tool for working with youth groups, Bible studies, and even Christmas parties.  Please feel free to copy and use.

Click here for the quiz:  The Christmas Quiz 2014