I wrote this on CRC-Voices in a thread where someone was telling about why they left their CRC church for an OPC church which unlike their former CRC preached serially through books in the Bible.
There are levels to this discussion. As a pastor I’m often wrestling with the issue of sermon selection, what to present, how to present it, etc. I’ve tried a number of different approaches in my 12 years at Living Stones as well as the 6 years in the DR before that.
When I got to Living Stones the first sermon series I preached was on “the book of signs” from the first half of the gospel of John. I’ve preached Advent and Lent series, I’ve preached “application” series with “how to…” titles. Over the last 2 years I’ve gone to preaching serially through books of the Bible in both my Sunday School class and sermons except for breaks for Advent and Lent and other special occasions. (I don’t do Mother’s Day or Father’s day. I draw the line there… 🙂 ) I’ve come to believe that this is the best way to go for my little church right now.
I can appreciate Pete’s frustration but I can also appreciate the frustration and attempts of the pastors involved. Pastors are expected to “grow the church”. Pastors are expected to “feed the flock”. Pastors are expected to do evangelism. Pastors are expected to be practical. Pastors are expected to address the skeptics, the youth, the elderly, the mid-lifers, the children, the pillars all at the same time with the same message. It’s like saying you should sell sugar cereal to kids and starbucks to the hipsters and Viagra to the old timers all with the same 30 second ad. Um, it can’t be done.
I don’t want to let pastors off the hook here either though, because even though there are a cacophony of voices all applying pressure the pastor has to make a decision and be ready to face the consequences. Conservatives and liberals like to talk about “accountability” and any given council may hold any given pastor “accountable” for any given set of expectations that they might possess. A pastor can be told to “look for another call” if the congregation isn’t growing in the ways some have decided it is desirable to grow (young unchurched couples or “the right” people who come every week, have kids who sit still and tithe and volunteer…) Every pastor will soon learn that keeping your job or building a career or being a success involves finding the right “fit” for a church and keeping whatever the current political power mix in that church happy. A pastor who doesn’t “feed the flock” (defined by the expectations of the implicit power structure of that congregation) will have a brief tenure. If you want to have a long tenure you either change the church according what you believe the church should be doing (this is currently called “leadership” by the church leadership cadres) usually by selecting or elevating those who agree with you and marginalizing or alienating those who oppose you or you just keep doing whatever the group in power wants you to do.
What results from all of this is either a diversity of churches (we call this good) or church polarization (we call this bad). Now on one hand it is good that there are different kinds of churches but the reality of the diversity exposes the obvious consumer sentiment among liberal, conservative, seeker, of whatever type of religions operation you wish to lead or participate in or “consume”.
Why have I decided to preach though books of the Bible? I won’t pretend that this decision of mine somehow “escapes the consumer system”. I decided to do that because I decided I wanted to try to give my church a vocabulary based on something other than the pragmatic consumer vocabularies that they swim in for the other 165 hours a week. I want them to hear from another place and time. I want them to see how different they are from those other places and people but also what they have in common. I want to take my best shot at having them listen to what John and Paul and Peter and Jesus and OT prophets and anonymous OT writers and wise persons might have to say to our world. I know I do so imperfectly but I at least want to take a shot at it. I think they might find it helpful.
People are all going to evaluate me and the “results” of this effort however they are going to do it. God gave us this enormous freedom which we enjoy. I have to resist the impulse of being bothered by the exercise of others using the gift that I enjoy. At some point I have to make a decision and decide to live with the consequences of it. That doesn’t mean I won’t ever change my mind, but it does mean that I do exercise this wonderful agency that I’ve been given and to do so as best I can. So this is what I’ve decided to do now.
I know it’s part of my American cultural package to more highly value those who make their choices for reasons the culture admires (explained practicality) than based on tradition (this practice is how we define ourselves).
One of the things I learn from trying to listen to the Apostles is that they didn’t play by our rules either. They take do things with OT text I would never think of. They contextualize their messages to their audiences (study Peter and Paul’s sermons in Acts) and sometimes they just plain do something new and outlandish. I frankly don’t find conservatives to be any less consumers than many that they criticize. They jump church to find a place that suits them just as quickly as the 20 something that just can’t stand the bigotry of a church that won’t embrace equal acceptance for homosexual behavior. It’s the same game. What I do know, however, is that I believe God has called me to serve him and to use whatever I have at my disposal to do so and to do so the best way I can figure out how to do it given who I am and where I am at. Whatever decisions or judgments others make on what I do is on them. Over time I’m more and more comfortable with this arrangement. I find that trying to be the master of the universe is wearisome and more than a bit above what I’m capable of doing.
Paul,I have struggled with this same issue myself. When I do a series based on a topic, I feel this artificial compulsion to split it into four arbitrary sections. Somewhere I'll have an idea what text will fit each sections. Then I have to go hunt down some text that will back up my main point. Usually, I discover that the text doesn't really say what I remembered it as saying. So then I have to wrestle with that.When I go to emerging church events, the fact that I have done topical sermon series makes me feel all dirty and mega-churchy.Other times I go through a book or story of the Bible. Sometimes it seems like that goes on too long. Usually, when I'm done studying and writing about it, I retrospectively realize that, alas, I could have gotten four sections of a theme out of it. That's the irony of our task. Too bad one can't spend a few years studying, reading and coming up with sermon series before we actually have to go preach them. Of course, by the time we executed them, much of our insights would be irrelevant anyway.