When Ministry Paradigms Collide

Two ministry paradigms collided within me yesterday, but I couldn't tell you what the wreckage looked like, because I'm not sure I really understand what happened. 

Yesterday I attended a seminar on preaching stewardship where we heard from a Lutheran pastor who, from what I can tell, seems to swim in somewhat different church waters than I do.  As I listened to him speak, I found myself saying at times, "Oh, we wouldn't do that in my church," or, "That's not the approach I would take."  I didn't really have any substantial reason to oppose or challenge what he was saying – in fact, much of it made all kinds of sense – but nonetheless it didn't set right with me.

And so I'm not sure what instinct to trust – the "a-ha" moments I was having while listening to him, or the gut-sense that his approach to church was just too different than mine.

For example, he offered an outline for a sermon series.  My gut reaction was to wince and mutter to myself, I don't do sermon series.  But, the series he presented was lectionary-based, making it a bit more appealing.  But still, for reasons rational or not – perhaps I'm just a snob – I don't do sermon series.  I have usually found them gimmicky.  Yet … yet I know that people in the pews often find such sermon series to be effective tools connecting various themes and helping them listen for something in the sermon.  (OK, my ambivalence about sermon series and sermon titles would make a full post, but that's for another day.)

Yet his sample sermon series was designed to respond to the question, "How do Christians live?"  A wonderful topic, but one that all but requires the preacher to preach about us, to make us and the way we live our lives central to the sermon.  But I've been taught, and I strive to put into practice, an understanding of preaching as proclaiming the Good News of God's work in the world, not a discourse about our work in the world.  Sermons have as their subject God, and as their object the world (including us). I'd be more than glad to teach about the Christian life, using his outline, but to preach about it?  I see preaching and teaching as different tasks.  But – and here comes the moment of realization -  when only a small percentage of the adults who attend worship show up for education hour, why not take the time to teach from the pulpit, when you've got them right in front of you?

Most significantly, perhaps, in describing his ministry this pastor talked alot about making disciples, helping people faithfully follow Jesus.  There was clearly an element of personal conversion in his tone, even if it was far from the "accept Jesus in your heart" conversion formulas of many evangelicals.  On the other hand, I tend to talk about being the church, gathering in community for a shared experience of faith, and the shared witness to Christ we make to the world.  I'm more likely to speak of conversion as something than happens within, and to, a community, than I am to speak about personal conversion.  He and I simply approach the work of the church differently, with different questions and different emphases.  Yet I can see the appeal – and the Biblical basis – for a stronger language of personal discipleship, particularly if set within a communal framework.

And finally, he mentioned that he once presented a large cardboard "golf check" to the director of a local non-profit organization, during worship.  Though I'm a fan of incorporating all kinds of blessings and prayers in worship – from blessings of backpacks to laying on of hands for the sick – the whole big cardboard check presentation thing seems better suited for a banquet or coffee hour gathering or congregational meeting, it seems to me.  On the other hand, worship is the largest weekly gathering of a congregation's membership.  So why not use that gathering to highlight how the congregation gives beyond its doors, and lift up in prayer and praise a community organization with as many church members as possible?  Such a public recognition of support for a community organization could have a great impact on the congregation, even if doing it during worship has a little bit of a "variety show" feel to it.

So I'm torn.  I can see how some of these tactics are or could be effective and appealing.  Nonetheless, I don't do such things.  I don't do preaching series, I try not to teach from the pulpit, and I do all I can to maintain worship as a time of prayer, praise, and blessing, and to save other rituals and gestures – as good and holy and wonderful as they might be – for other settings.  Is this just snobbery getting in the way of effective ministry, or a striving for liturgical perfection that too easily is becoming the enemy of otherwise good ministry?

I don't quite understand the "bigger picture" of the two paradigms that collided within me yesterday.  I can't quite articulate the theological, liturgical, or ecclesiological convictions that stand behind either way of doing church, nor the implications of those convictions.  Sure, I know that he and I approach preaching and worship in different ways, but I can't really tell you what those differences really mean, and what implications they have for the life of the church and the faith of the believer. I need to learn more.

All I know is that my own approach to doing church was challenged yesterday, and I am grateful for the thought-provoking experience.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

4 thoughts on “When Ministry Paradigms Collide

  1. Chris, this is something I struggle with, as well, particularly this week as I launch into a joint evangelism study with two other congregations with…yes, a sermon series. I’m determined to link it to the lectionary, and looking ahead, I think I can probably do that! Odd how Good News works… 🙂
    I think one of the problems for Lutherans is that we have such a kneejerk reaction to anything that smacks of “works righteousness” that we have forgotten that personal conversion, works, and discipleship living are necessary parts of following Jesus. The irony is, though, that if we are not personally converted–over and over again, daily–then any of our works become a matter of law, and not grace. But where the conservative evangelical folks fall down, I believe, is in thinking that personal conversion is ALL that matters, without seeing the communal aspects. And they focus too much on a single moment of conversion that depends on the believer more than on God, in many ways.
    We Lutherans have gone to the other extreme, though. We’re so afraid that our conversions might be works rather than grace that we avoid the individual aspect of relationship with God.
    Jesus didn’t hesitate to instruct his disciples very directly, by the way. But even in our teaching, we can find the gospel. That’s where we Lutherans have a gift to give to the Church…if it’s just teaching, it risks being Law. But why not teach your people while you have them, and as part of it, teach them to look for the grace and Good News that surely underlies it?
    As for lifting up a community organization in worship, what better way to reinforce for the people of God that most of God’s work takes place outside the doors of the church? The Lutheran tendency, though, is not to talk about the God part of it, and it ends up a social service agency ad. If we can link God’s action in the social sphere with our worship of God and God’s mighty acts, though, then we’ve found the Good News in it.

  2. Hey, Chris. I appreciate your struggle. Some thoughts/questions:
    Isn’t God’s way of working in the world “us”? As our Synod has been saying for a while: “God has a plan. We’re it.” (Grammatically awkward, but a great point.)
    What kind of community do we have if its members are not on a personal spiritual journey and in a relationship with Christ?
    Jesus didn’t exhort his followers to hear about God, they were encouraged to know him and follow his way.

  3. I appreciated the tensions you described in your post. And I appreciated Keith’s take on the same things. In our church, the announcements, be they about some church “business” (long overdue, but underfunded, remodeling), or about an upcoming youth event, Sunday School, or something in the community (fund raising dinner for a community member, etc.) happen at the beginning of the worship hour, but before the candles are lit and before the invocation, so that they are not “during worship.” I don’t think that this is a gimmick. For so many years, I’ve seen the “announcements” made during the service, perhaps before the scripture readings. It seemed to break the flow of the service and be out of place.
    Regarding teaching during a sermon. Hmmmm. I haven’t heard you preach, of course, so I don’t know your style…but…when I hear a sermon that is full of good proclamation but doesn’t get into some practicalities, I wonder why not? Why isn’t the preacher giving some illustrations as to how I can put this into my life? Why isn’t the pastor giving some examples of how this Good News might impact this church?
    Am I not understanding what you are expressing?

  4. I wonder about the same things often. I’m with Bob Fisher on the point that what we do in the world is what God is doing in the world.
    In my congregation, which is small in number like countless others, Sunday worship has become for many the single experience of the congregation. It’s not true for all,and we’re trying to reverse that reality. Our best efforts aside, there is a pressure…perhaps even a NEED…to incorporate teaching and announcements into the Sunday gathering.
    As for announcements…the beginning didn’t work here because people weren’t always in place. I found minimal disruption by doing them after the Peace, which serves to refocus a congregation that can get social during the peace. Most of the time, I might suggest that announcements about the life and ministry of the congregation are worthy of being seen as an act of worship. We’ve never had a big golf check, but our announcements have on occassion been the same thing without the prop (e.g. “our fundraiser for Habitat raised $____ !!!!”)
    I am totally down with your priority of keeping the focus on community (“being the church”).

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: