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Mike and I both tend to be too intellectual in our sermons.  Yesterday we had an experience that shows why this can be a problem:

Mike is learning guitar.  Since I’ve played for a while, there have been a couple times when I’ve showed him new things on the guitar.  While showing Mike chords yesterday, I decided to switch and show him harmonics.  He had not asked any questions which would have brought up the subject.  As a beginner (though quickly learning) guitarist, he’s not at a point where harmonics are likely to be used in any songs he’s learning.  But I think harmonics are cool, so I wanted to show him harmonics. I’ve been playing guitar for fourteen years.  Mike has been playing for a few weeks.  I’m fascinated by things like harmonics.  Mike isn’t.  He wanted to learn how to move more quickly from a G chord to a C chord.

How often do preachers do exactly the same thing?  We get really excited about showing our congregation harmonics – whatever historical or linguistic or theological nuggets of information capture our attention –  when all the while the people present are more concerned with moving from one chord to another.

Part of the problem is pride.  We toss in “In the Greek it says . . .”, when we really could convey the same point without boasting of our education.  It’s not that we shouldn’t teach things of substance – we certainly should.  We just have to teach in a way that communicates to the people listening.  The Upper Room is an intelligent congregation, but most folks there could care less whether my sermons have footnotes.  More mild than boasting but equally prideful, we can also easily choose the self-centered topics.  As I showed Mike harmonics because I like them, so also I’m sure I’ve preached on some issues because I felt like it, not because it was appropriate for where the congregation was at that point. 

Another issue is seminary education: Removed from the non-Christian world, students get used to pleasing professors who are often more concerned with the finer points of theology or language than communication to a non-seminary (or non-Christian) audience.  The product is preachers who can expound on Greek and footnote the theologians they’re referencing, but have little skill in connecting to the everyday world of their congregations.  I’ve played guitar for fourteen years. But that doesn’t mean I should have showed Mike something I learned a few years into playing guitar when he’s a few weeks into it. 

So there’s the diagnosis.  But what’s the remedy?  Perhaps an accurate assessment of the congregation’s level of discipleship is a good place to start.  Are you preaching to longtime Christians or people new to faith?  Is their discipleship deep or shallow?  More importantly, though, the basic skills of communication have to be built.  I’m starting to read more fiction and poetry, as well as more non-churchy non-fiction, so that I get used to communicating more through story and image.  What other options might there be?

A couple weeks ago, Mike and I were interviewed by Leslie Scanlon for an article in the Presbyterian Outlook about The Upper Room’s approach to bi-vocational ministry.  (It’s available now online here, if you want to read it.)  Bi-vocational ministry simply means working another job outside of one’s formal church work to pay the bills.  It’s also called tentmaking because of Paul’s example in Acts 18:3.  It was the way much of the church functioned in its early history, and it’s the way many pastors earn a living in other parts of the world where Christianity is rapidly growing. 

In last Monday’s (May 11th) episode of God Complex RadioBruce Reyes-Chow and Carol Howard Merritt talked about the lack of full-time positions available in ministry for recent seminary graduates.   The problem is the relationship between the cost of education – very high – and what churches can afford to pay their pastors – in most places, not much.  (See Carol’s post We can no longer afford an educated clergy for more background.)  So, we need to find other models of ministry and preparation for ministry.  One such model may be bi-vocating for full-time tentmaking, which Bruce and Carol start talking about twenty minutes into the episode. 

Bi-vocating has worked for us, at least so far, but only for a number of reasons which are unique to us.  First, financially:  Mike and were able to go into bi-vocational ministry because we didn’t have loads of student loans to pay-off. (Thank you donors to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary!)  On top of that, Mike and I are still paid half-time salaries out of grants for new church development.  Because Presbyterians traditionally pay their pastors well, a half-time salary is still reasonable compensation.  Second, we like what we’re doing.   As Carol says 21 minutes in, bi-vocational ministry is resisted because a lot of pastors don’t know how to do anything else.  Even though Mike and I are bi-vocational, we’re definitely in this boat.  My other job is serving coffee at the 61C Cafe.  I love coffee, love being a barista, and love my job and coworkers at the cafe.  I don’t want to do anything else. And to be honest, educationally, I’m not prepared to do much else.  When I graduated from college with a degree in Religious Studies and Creative Writing, I said to myself: “I can two things with this degree, work in a coffee shop or go to grad school.”  Hence where I am today.  Third, The Upper Room is at a stage in its life right now where bi-vocating is necessary both for financial support, and for the growth of the church.  As a church-planter, my time at the cafe is my largest chunk of time each week spent getting to know the community we’re trying to reach.  Fourth, it’s consistent with the vision for Upper Room to have us be bi-vocational.  By bi-vocating, we don’t surround ourselves with other Christians, thus forcing us as pastors to live as missional examples for the people in the congregation.  All of that having been said, bi-vocating has worked for us in our context, but it won’t in every context. 

But for the past two weeks I haven’t stopped thinking What if we’re not radical enough?  What if the day comes when we will have to, by necessity, be full-time tentmakers  What if I’ll have to go back to school or take a job in another field someday in order to fully support a family while still working for the church?  To prepare people for this kind of ministry requires a completely different kind of seminary, or model of ministry training.  Perhaps it would be something like the World Christian Discipleship Program.  Near the end of that episode of God Complex, Carol suggests pursuing creative forms of education which can be done alongside other work (whether full-time ministry or other employment).  I have a friend who will be going to seminary in Bolivia next year and taking distance classes from Fuller all while working in university ministry.  What other possibilities might there be?

Something about my last post didn’t quite sit right with me when I finished it.  A comment by PTS professor Scott Sunquist last night helped sort it out.  A student asked him to expound on the theme of hope, making reference to Hebrews 11:1, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Sunquist went on to talk about how all of the examples given in Hebrews 11 of heroes of faith died before they saw their hope realized (see Heb. 11:13).  What we truly hope for in the Kingdom of God cannot be realized within time. To use a seminary word, it’s eschatological hope.  It’s a hope that grows out of Christ’s resurrection.  And there’s no way to resurrection without crucifixion. 

The people of our world do indeed need to hear a message of hope, and they know this.  That’s why we look for hope in myriad places: political figures, technology, health-care, green economies, government bailouts.  All of these objects of “hope”, however, will one day disappoint us.  They are all false-hopes.  What distinguishes the Christian message of hope from all others is the gigantic cross that stands right in the center of the path to the land hoped for.  We do indeed proclaim a message of hope, but it’s one that has its center in the crucified Jesus.  Hope abstracted from both the cross and resurrection of Jesus is meaningless; hope defined as resurrection life in the Kingdom of God at the cost of the cross will not disappoint.