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Whining Makes Mediocre

It is intriguing to me the complaint that Christian ministers voice commonly. There are several variations of it and it is expressed in several different ways, but essentially it goes something like:  “Christians will pay to watch 3 hours of entertainment but are unwilling to sit through even one hour of Bible teaching.” I say it is intriguing not only because of the point of the complaint, or that such a complaint is vocalized at all, but because I think that it actually produces the condition it purports to observe. It is a deterministic form of spiritual hypochondria: It complains itself right into reality. 

But first things first: This complaint doesn’t even get the basic facts right. 90% of Americans go to the movie theatre 2 times or less a month, and 46% of them do not go at all. Whereas 47% of Americans go to church once a week. And while we are looking at the statistics, let’s bust the myth that people are going to church for the entertainment factor. 83% of Americans attend churches with fewer than 500 members and of them 47% attend churches with fewer than 100 members. 92% say the reason they attend church is because the sermons teach them more about the scriptures, and of those 76% say it is a major factor; whereas only 49% say that a good choir or praise band are a major factor in that choice and 14% say it isn’t a factor at all. Of all the factors polled, the entertainment factor was least important to church goers. So the mythical Christian who only attends church to be entertained simply does not withstand statistical scrutiny. It doesn’t withstand logical scrutiny either. We do not live in Little House on the Prairie where the only fun thing to do on the weekend is go to church, or where the only music and mirth are at church. If people want to hear music and be entertained, they have 500 channels on their TV and millions of options online. Christians go to Church because they hunger for God’s word. To imply anything else is not only factually incorrect, it is ignorant of the doctrine of the New Birth and denigrating to the work of the Holy Spirit. 

However, let’s put aside the facts, as these memes and objections obviously do, and consider them for a moment in the light of their own claims. The point of the objection is that it is a Christian’s own fault that they are not as interested in preaching and teaching as they are in movies and concerts. This is illustrated by pointing out that few complain that the latest superhero film lasts 3+ hours, and they wouldn’t dream of taking a bathroom break during the movie, but when it comes to the Sunday service, they can’t sit through an hour sermon and if, God forbid, it extends past noon, there will certainly be ‘roast preacher’ all the way home. For many of you, this probably sounds accurate, and you are probably dutifully convicted of your bad attitude and general lack of spirituality. 

But there are several considerations that should be taken into account. 

First, of course people who go to church lack spirituality. Why else would they be there?! Preachers who rail against the lack of spirituality in their congregants are like cooks who get angry when the diners are hungry, or doctors who fume because all their patients show up sick. Whatever happened to the attitude that we come not to the healthy but to the sick, no to the righteous but the sinners?

Second, this objection is a fallacious generalization. The implication is that Christians would rather watch any three hour movie than listen to any 1 hours sermon. That is obviously false. There are hundreds of movies made every year, they have hundreds of channels on their TV, and there are billions of websites available on their phones… and they are bored all the time. The single biggest complaint against the entertainment industry is that their products are generally boring. The more accurate statement is that Christians would rather watch a well-made three hour movie than a poorly constructed one hour sermon. If we take the latest summer blockbuster feature film and compare it to the latest Sunday sermon this is what we get: The filmmakers spent $500 million dollars, 10,000 man hours, and harvested the most elite talent on the planet in making and marketing the film. How much money, time, and talent do you think was invested in the sermon? Honestly. Maybe the preacher “thought about it” for a week. It was “on his heart”. Did he research his facts? Did he plan out his illustrations? Did he develop his structure? Did he prepare a salient conclusion? Did he make any concerted effort to sanctify it with prayer? Or do he just have some verses thrown together; maybe a few points jotted down; a general notion of where he are going with it; and finally he settled for impromptu illustrations that most people have probably heard before. If he were honest, did he put more time and thought into his weekly grocery list than in his sermon? And you’re surprised that it doesn’t fare well in a head-to-head comparison with a feature film? I am surprised that people already know what to expect and they come anyway. Maybe they are more spiritual than I give them credit for.

Third, the comparison is a category error. Just because they are interested in a 3 hour movie but prefer a sermon to last 45 minutes does not mean that they value the sermon less. Sex with their spouse might last 30 minutes–I said let’s be honest–followed by 8 hours of sleep, that doesn’t mean that they care more about sleep. Different activities have different thresholds of tolerance and endurance. You can ride in a car for hundreds of miles without getting tired but if you are running behind it you probably won’t get that far. Listening to an information-packed sermon requires far more concentration and mental effort than vegging out in front of the latest CGI-fest. After all, modern films are not crafted to appeal to the intellectuals. They are designed to force your brain to suspend all intelligent and critical thought, and expose you to a sheer emotional experience. It is not reasonable to compare that emotional ride with the rigours of profound and self-critical reasoning. It is the difference between riding in the passenger seat of a car and sitting up straight, eyes peeled down the road, steering it. 

But most importantly, it is a deflection. The onus of being bored is offloaded on the audience. It is their lack of spirituality that the sermon didn’t engage them. Meaning it is their responsibility to hear better. What is ridiculous is that so many Christians have drunk the kool-aid. They leave church feeling guilty that they were unengaged, concompelled. The preaching was obviously good so they are obviously the problem, they just need to get their heart right and have a better spirit. There probably is some truth to that, however, what I know is that when I go see a movie, and it is too long and boring, and pointless and repetitive, I don’t leave the theater racked with guilt for not having the proper “movie spirit.” When I go to a concert performed by musicians that sing the same song for 60 minutes in a monotone, off-key, constant scream and forget half the lyrics and end up telling pointless stories about their yesteryears, I don’t beat myself up on the way home for not having the “concert spirit”. When I go to a restaurant and they serve me a mound of flavorless, textureless mush still in the shape of the can they plunked it out of I don’t tearfully repent of my poor culinary spirit. Most likely I will walk out and never go back.

Do people go to church who are conflicted whether they want to be there? Is it a challenge to not be distracted by the world they carry in the palm of their hand? Do many of us struggle with a law in our members that is warring against the law of our mind? Absolutely. That is why we are in church. We want to be apprehended and compelled. But if we could heal ourselves we wouldn’t be there. It is not solely the congregation’s duty to hear right. It is also the preacher’s responsibility to preach right. Was the sermon boring? That is the preacher’s fault. And until we preachers own up to that failure, we will continue to fail and the church will continue to falter and fall to the wayside. It is lamentable that we have a culture in the ministry that closely mirrors that of the tenured education system. These teachers whine about their uninspired students, plummeting grades, and failing classes and take no responsibility for it. They are doing the best they can, they whine. The parents aren’t backing them up, they whine. They need more resources, they whine. Someone needs to give them some cheese to go with all that whine. If I am going to stand and monopolize an hour of the congregation’s time, it is my responsibility to have something to say that truly speaks to them. And enough with the nonsense that they aren’t interested because they only want to be entertained. Don’t you think they have figured out by now that it will be a cold day in hell before any entertainment ever pokes it head out of our church? Stop deflecting on their admitted carnality and start speaking to their new creature that hungers and pants for God’s word.

So if all that is what is wrong with this objection, what good can we glean from it?

I think we should consider the fundamental lessons that can be learned from any industry that has figured out how to engage people, be it film, music, economists, or philosophers. It is a mistake to think that we need to emulate the entertainment factor. We don’t have the talent, and even if we did, that is not what people want in church, and it certainly isn’t what they need. I think we should be able to agree on a few fundamental elements that would vastly improve the ministry.

1. We need talent.

Teaching, and preaching, is a gift. Not everyone who wants to do it, can. How can you know if you are a teacher… if you have the gift to teach? If no one is learning you are not teaching. Either figure out how to discharge your gift, or find your true gift. But quit blaming the students for believing their lying ears. I admire that so many want to be preachers and teachers in our church. I agree with Paul, we should all covet to prophesy. However, we are not all prophets or teachers or preachers. We need people who have the gift to do the work. This is going to require a measure of humility in those that have the desire but not the gift, and a measure of faith in those that have the gift but not the desire. I think that our emphasis on the lay ministry and our peculiar implementation of the priesthood of the believer has led to a cheapening of the ministry. Anyone can preach. Anyone can teach. That is the attitude, but it isn’t true. I wish everyone was a prophet. I also wish everyone were a doctor. But handing out free scalpels and unearned medical degrees doesn’t actually realize that wish. There needs to be some form of barrier of entry. We can discuss and disagree as to what that barrier should be and how high it should be, but devaluing the ministry to the point that anyone can attain does not make everyone a preacher, it makes preaching nothing.

2. We need training.

All the gift in the world is useless in the hands of the untrained minister. The movie myth of the genius savant who can perform any skill with no prior training is just that: A myth. It is true that some require more training than others, but all require training. We would like to think that we are emphasizing the guidance of the Spirit, but we are really disguising laziness. What is pathetic is that we don’t conduct ourselves by that philosophy in any other area of our life. We train our kids to drive a car. We train our employees to perform their job. We train our dogs to uneat in the grass. … We expect the piano player to be trained on the instrument; and the guitar player; and the lead singer. It might not be formal school training, but it is training all the same. And I am not referring to practice. Practice without training mostly only enforces bad habits. I think that formal training in a Bible School or Seminary is not a bad idea, and would even serve as a reasonable barrier of entry. The objection our church often raises is that it would discourage many from entering the ministry. Well… that is the point of a barrier of entry. However, would we want to be represented by a lawyer who got an exemption from law school because he didn’t want to go? Or a doctor? Or an electrician? I am not advocating that any Bible School or Seminary is good, but they can’t all be bad. And even if we concluded that they were all bad, they don’t all have to be bad. The Church should be training its ministers, one way or another. And I mean really training them. How do we know if we are really training them? Well as we said before, if no one is being trained, we are not really training them. I would also add, if no one is failing out then we are not really training either–at least not for a real-world ministry. It simply isn’t plausible that every single candidate is qualified.

3. We need practice.

Technical knowledge acquired through training is not enough. Not even close. Alongside training and forever after the minister needs to practice his craft. The common misconception is that practice and preaching are one and the same. I don’t know how they managed to snowball the entire world into such a sweetheart deal, but only doctors get to practice and work at the same time. All the rest of us poor schlubs have to actually practice. Famous studies were done that seemed to show that elite level performance required 10,000 hours of practice, regardless of the activity. However, that is often misquoted and misunderstood. 10,000 hours of mindess practice is not very helpful. If we want to get the most out of practice we need to have an objective, and a deliberate plan, and it needs to be tailored to fit our individual limitations and idiosyncrasies. Some can practice efficiently 6 days a week, 4 hours a day. Others 1 hour a day, 3 days a week. But everyone needs to practice. If for no other reason, then to reinforce the mental discipline of not taking the work of the ministry for granted. The Sunday sermon should not be an afterthought of the week. If we want people to want to come to Church, and want to stay alert, and want to listen to every word, then we need to take it much more seriously. I honestly doubt that most of us would speak to congress, or pretty much any formal gathering, with as little preparation as when we preach to God’s people. And even if we would, the fact that we are objecting to our audience not being interested should be sufficient evidence that it isn’t working for us.

4. We need preparation.

The “Read And Ramble” method of teaching does not work. It is the fallback position of the procrastinator and the slothful. There are many types of sermons and infinite ways to prepare them. But what they all have in common is preparation. Some preachers might require very detailed preparation, perhaps writing out a full manuscript and memorizing it. Others might be better served by a structural outline. And, of course, there must always be room in every preacher’s repertoire for the unplanned, unforeseeable address whereupon he is ejoined to trust that the Spirit will give him the right words; but even that is not without the greatest form of preparation–a long-term, full-time meditation on God’s word. As Captain Sulley famously said after performing the only successful emergency water landing of a commercial airliner: “For 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training, and on [that day] the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.” One thing seems certain to me: Regardless of the method and extent of your preparation, what you should carefully craft is your illustrations, that seems to be the point where the sermon wheels tend to fly off and send the message careening off the path. And while you are at it, why not carefully think though the conclusion and the final statements you will make. Not only will the ending be more compelling, but if you are the kind of preacher that crosses the finish line but keeps driving around the track because you just don’t know how to stop, it will give you a clear exit strategy.

5. We need effort.

Lack of practice and lack of preparation tend to rob us of our effort. So, even though ensuring that practice and preparation have their proper place in each sermon will most always inspire us to expend corresponding effort, it mustn’t become a mere reaction to those actions. Once we have all the other pieces in place, then we need to focus on doing the work. It would seem that too often we see the sermon as our little soldier, our day laborer; to be sent out to do the work. We just phone it in, as they say. None of this is to say that we need to yell more, or pound on the pulpit, or run around the room. This is nervous energy that can quickly become a bad habit and is almost always very counterproductive in the long run. Rather, the main effort needs to be the mental effort. Mental effort is the most difficult to muster. Pound for pound, the brain–when thinking–burns more calories than any other organ of the body, regardless of the activity. This is why we naturally gravitate to cliches, canned responses, threadbare illustrations, and the same basic sermons disguised with slightly different window dressings. To avoid that pitfall requires concerted effort. Closely connected to the effort of thinking, is the effort of communicating. Communication is a reciprocal relationship, it is not just speaking out into a void. It is hearing and seeing and sensing; not only your own voice and actions but also that of those you want to listen to you. If you are not listening to your audience, they are not listening to you either. This requires great effort. It gets easier over time, but it is never easy. What is easy is putting the record on the player, carefully lowering the needle, and letting the lifeless speech play out through the speakers with no regard to the effect it is having on the audience. If you are afraid or disdainful of hard work, then preaching is not the job for you. It is the hardest job you will ever do, if it is done right. If you are not entirely spent after 45 minutes of wrestling with God and man, then you were probably only shadow boxing.

6. We need evaluation.

The Holy Grail of preaching is reaching a skill level where no one, at least no mere mortal, can detect any flaws or missteps: Practical perfection. I say the “Holy Grail” because that level does not exist. You must be firmly convinced that every past sermon could have been better, and every future sermon should be an improvement. Preachers need to welcome and solicit critical evaluation. We all enjoy compliments, and we should accept them graciously, regardless of how poorly we know we performed, but what we should really learn to savor is the harsh, merciless, withering criticism. Many times that is the only thing sharp enough, and long enough, to penetrate the callous of obliviousness and self-satisfaction. Who can give us this gift of honesty? Anyone. Everyone. But you will probably have to look for it from people you least like to be judged by, simply because they are some of the few willing to hurt your feelings. They might even take some pleasure in it; be careful not to be seduced by the siren song of self-pity; they might not intend the criticism as a help, but if you are willing to diligently thresh the grain from the chaff, you will find an invaluable source for improvement. You should constantly assure your audience that you welcome their feedback, either personally or anonymously. Encourage them to write it on the offering envelope: Perhaps that wasn’t what Paul had in mind when he wrote it, but consider it a form of double-honor. I think it is unconscionable that all manner of misbehaviour is corrected in the church, but bad preaching is allowed to continue unchecked, to the detriment and suffering of the entire congregation. Preachers should not be above correction, and the congregation shouldn’t have to resort to ‘roast preacher’ in the car on the way home from the service, or muttering about under their breath. We should encourage them to evaluate the sermon, both good and bad. And especially encourage and empower them to bring the bad to our attention. Only the slothful minister who has no intention or desire to improve will object to criticism. 

7. We need experience.

As the great philosopher, Head-And-Shoulders said: “Lather, Rinse, Repeat”. Experience produces confidence. Some might say that even experience doing everything wrong produces confidence, but I don’t think that is correct. I think that produces all at once both arrogance and self-loathing: A lethal combination. Such ministers are unable to graciously acknowledge gift and excellence in others. They cannot decrease so others can increase. They know only one way to stand out, and that is to blow the airlocks and purge any competition. That isn’t confidence. True confidence is sure, and steady, and humble, and meak, and charitable, and empowering, and inspiring. If we are repeating the same mistakes over and over… and over, we are not building confidence. We need to break that cycle and retool our swing. No doubt it will be excruciatingly painful, and we will probably head down some dead-end alleys before we find our proper path, but if we persist we will apprehend that for which also we are apprehended. And in so doing, the church will be ministered to according to the ability which God supplies.

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