Resource, Lesson or Study

When life hits us with painful trials, our hearts plead that God tell us why. The Bible teaches there are many reasons God allows suffering. But, like Job, the person suffering might not know why...

August 10, 2015 1 0 comments
Q&A

Does anyone know of any short but effective ministry evaluation tools? I would appreciate any suggestions you may have.

August 6, 2015 0 7 comments
Blog

Veterans from America’s longest war have joined the veterans of earlier wars in our communities and churches. Their perspective has been shaped by their experience. Like everyone else, they have spiritual gifts. They also have needs...

August 4, 2015 1 1 comments
Q&A

I am the newly elected president and one member has raised a concern that our executive committee includes both of our pastoral staff. What is the appropriate membership?

July 8, 2015 0 5 comments
Blog

And whoever wants to be first must be your slave. – Matthew 20:27

Our Lord shows us in this passage that those who desire to be great and feel called of the Lord to be leaders need to seek to be servants. The mother of two of the Disciples comes to our Lord and asks if they could sit in...

June 11, 2015 0 0 comments
Resource, Webinar Recording

This webinar explores various aspects of addiction, recovery, and how the church can be a place of healing for individuals and families impacted by alcoholism and addiction.

May 13, 2015 0 0 comments
Blog

The following are remembrances of being an elder. I started at age 35 and a large responsibility was family visits. The visits were announced in the bulletin two weeks in advance. The visits were done in the afternoon and evening; three families each time.

The Pastor and I visit an...

April 16, 2015 0 0 comments
Blog

For many people, the last three places they would want to be is a funeral, a hospital or a hospice care center. I think these are the best places you could go if you want to grow in faith.

April 15, 2015 0 0 comments
Blog

My church is embarking on a journey of pastoral transition. Transitions are hard. My greatest dream for this process is that we take every opportunity to model grace and patience.

April 14, 2015 0 0 comments
Discussion Topic

Ministers are teaching elders, theologically trained and spiritually astute. Should we set a higher standard for the kinds of elders we appoint or elect?

March 17, 2015 4 1 comments
Blog

There are many people who have no one. Therefore, we need Attention Givers that dare ask the difficult questions and speak words of encouragement.

March 4, 2015 1 1 comments
Blog

Everyone knows what it means to be “the other”. Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, had that in mind. “Each of you should look not only to his own interest, but also to the interest of others.”

January 28, 2015 2 0 comments
Blog

Even through times of deep depression, his ministry remained directed toward helping people in their struggles, encouraging them not to lose faith in God.

January 19, 2015 1 4 comments
Blog

Change requires careful observation and preparation. Once you agreed on a certain program that necessitates the change, have you consistently backed the members who have been put in charge of it?

January 13, 2015 2 0 comments
Resource, Devotional

2014 has come to an end. Though the days were busy, thoughts multiplied. And so we think...we ponder. Who are we? How shall we live?

January 2, 2015 1 0 comments
Discussion Topic

I am privileged to travel across Canada to connect with Christian business leaders and with the heads of a dozen non-profits and a half dozen Christian universities.

I am saddened to report that I have heard a recurring refrain throughout 2014. It comes in the form of a question and it is...

December 23, 2014 0 22 comments
Blog

Sometimes I wish I had an in with God in such a way that I could read how He feels about me.

December 23, 2014 1 1 comments
Blog

Youth is not always a time of innocence. Sins of our youth can be real. They can cling to us through subsequent years...

December 11, 2014 0 0 comments
Resource, Devotional

Bless the families in your congregation with this free Christmas devotional and plant a seed to encourage them to resolve to talk about faith and to spend time together in God's story each day in the New Year.

December 4, 2014 1 1 comments
Blog

It is probably true that we, as denomination, are overwhelmingly family-oriented. The question may be asked: are singles sufficiently recognized and do they share realistically in pastoral care?

December 4, 2014 0 1 comments
Blog

We thank God for whatever prosperity we may have. Compared to the Christians of Rome, we are rich people. But we all realize that it may not stay that way. Times of want may lie ahead.

November 24, 2014 0 0 comments
Blog

As an elder, you cannot be expected to be an expert in this complex area of drug use. But chances are considerable that there are some addicted people in your district.

November 17, 2014 2 2 comments
Blog

It's the same for all ages: we want to be liked. We are not proud of trying to look good. Still, the approval of people around us has its lure.

November 10, 2014 2 0 comments
Blog

Paul, the apostle wrote: “Weep with those who weep.” We may assume that he did what he wrote. Look at that short sentence again. It's more than advice. Paul extends a challenge to us.

October 27, 2014 1 0 comments
Blog

All believers have one gift in common: grace! It is the source of the other seven Christian gifts.

October 21, 2014 0 0 comments

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 We, in the Western world, need to get rid of the notion that health, wealth and merit are somehow related.  Those who preach the Health and Wealth Gospel would have us believe that they are, and that if you're a Christian AND sick or poor it's your own fault because you lack faith or you have unconfessed sins you need to get rid of.  That is BULL.... When I began to have symptoms I confessed a host of sins, both real and imagined, and the symptoms NEVER went away.  Job's friends believed he was guilty of some evil, and they harassed him about it to the point that God demanded they offer sacrifices before Job could pray for them to be forgiven.  The Lord NEVER promised we would enjoy health and wealth in this life, so let's stop assuming there is a connection between health--mental or otherwise--and being a faithful servant of the Lord.  I was not given ANY guarantees when I made profession of faith in the Montreal CRC at the age of 18 other than to expect suffering.  Nor was I told in what form it would come.  Apparently, the devil doesn't scorn causing believers to become mentally ill if it can add to their suffering through the lack of compassion of other Christians.  That way he gets a bigger bang for his trouble.

These look great! 

I would add: Know and follow the Safe Church Policies of your church.

posted in: Hints for Elders

Thanks, Bonnie! Clay Olsen also gave a high-school-appropriate talk at GRCHS. The video is on their website http://www.grcs.org/NetCommunity/grchs-chapelnote.   

We are adding this website and video resource to the resources on the Safe Church Ministry webpage dedicated to pornography. Thanks for the information!

Fight The New Drug is an excellent organization for education and resources on this topic www.fightthenewdrug.org. See a talk given recently at Calvin by their founder, Clay Olsen http://livestream.com/calvin-college/SexualitySeries/videos/100668171 

Thanks so much Darren for bringing to light a topic that really needs to come out of the darkness. No problem will ever be solved by ignoring it. The problem of pornography must be addressed, yes, in our churches too. 

One question in my mind is, where can pastors or ministry leaders who struggle with this go for help? How do we create a culture where it's OK to share our struggles? At the same time we don't want to tolerate this evil, and it is evil, we have to be able to talk about it, and allow for people to seek help. Hiding it, or pretending it doesn't exist is the worst response.

Pornography was the topic of Abuse Awareness Sunday in 2012. Safe Church ministry supported, as we were able, a group of people who rode motorcycles to help increase awareness about this topic. We also had a powerful workshop at our bi-annual conference that year, which featured a couple who openly and courageously shared their own struggle with pornography addiction. We salute them! And we're so grateful for the insights they were able to share with us. I know that they are not alone. Find out more  here.  

Ken,

Thank you for the recommendation.  I just saved and copied this tool and will explore it further.  It looks helpful.

Grace & peace,

Leon

Lis,

Thank you for the recommendation.  I checked my resources and I have this tool!  So, now I will explore it.

May the Lord continue to empower you for a life of ministry,

Leon

Tim,

Thanks for the reply.  I'm thinking of an evaluation tool for specific ministries of the church.  It would be also helpful if the tool could help the team vision for the future, but maybe that's asking too much? :)

Thank you kindly and God bless,

Leon

Hi Leon -- toward the bottom of this page:

http://www.crcna.org/servicelink/engage/job-descriptions-church-volunteers

there is a downloadable Ministry Evaluation form that a CRC congregation has shared with us.  You can also use this document as a template and modify to suit your congregation's needs/circumstances,

Amen! Well articulated and a necessary reminder.

Hi Leon,

We have a great resource for that. "Evaluation Essentials for Congregational Leaders" You can find a PDF of it here or, if you'd like hard copies (for only the cost of shipping), you can get them from Faith Alive 800-333-8300 or Orders@FaithAliveResources.org  

Hope that helps!

Lis

By 'ministry evaluation tool' do you mean for evaluating specific ministry programs of your church, or the overall collective ministry impact?

Thank you everyone for your helpful and enlightening comments. I can now provide clarity and direction to our Council and staff on this matter of executive committee membership and appropriate functioning.

James van Hemert

In terms of this question, it is probably relevant to note that there is an ecclesiastical and civil law component to the question.

Church Order, Article 37 "...Although full consideration shall be given to the judgment expressed by the congregation, the authority for making and carrying out final decisions remains with the council as the governing body of the church, except in those matters stipulated otherwise in the articles of incorporation or by law" indicates that councils are also bound by civil and criminal law. (see also Church Order, Article 32, Supplement, Article 32-d) Since Duncan CRC is in British Columbia, the Society Act, etc. is applicable in this instance, and in particular Duncan CRC's Constitution & Bylaws. 

The elders and deacons are the directors of the corporation under civil law, and form the council under Church Order. The executive committee which may include elders and deacons constitute the officers of the Board under civil law. As noted below, the pastor may be part of the executive committee as an elder, but has ex-officio status being an employee, i.e. an non-voting member under civil law.

There may be occasions where the executive committee and/or board/council need to go into executive session which would require the staff/employees, i.e. pastors, etc. (non-voting members) to leave the room. Executive session is not the same thing as mutual censure. 

 

Our church uses a three level structure that seems to work well.  Full council consists of all elders and deacons, about 30 that meets 3 times per year to approve and deal with major items that need full council approval to present to congregation.  

Just as deacons are a "ministry" our elders are also assigned into ministry areas based on their gifts (Care, Youth, Worship, Adult, Seniors, Outreach, Admin).  Each have their own meetings and pastors attend them or not at their own discretion. The Admin ministry is effectively our Executive Committee (Chair, Vice-Chair and Clerk) plus our bookkeeper and our office admin person and meets monthly - no other staff.  The bookkeeper and office admin provide input, all Exec level decisions are made by the three council members.

We also have a Leadership group that consists of 2 deacons plus one elder from each ministry area plus pastors that meets monthly and does most of the business of the church - so about 12 in total.  The Admin/Exec team also prepares the agenda for the Leadership meetings, etc. and decides when items are small enough for them to handle on their own and when things should be referred to leadership. 

The goal here is that our pastors provide extremely valuable input but we want them to not focus on administration - so they don't run anything and in terms of voting they are 3 out of 12 at Leadership, they do not attend Exec/Admin meetings.

Lastly (to give the whole picture) consistory meets 4 times per year to look at teh "bigger picture" of the spiritual well-being of the church, overall direction, bigger ministry questions etc.

I would like to affirm Tim's comments and add our own experience. 

We have 2 Pastors (one Min of the Word and one commissioned) both are "ex-officio" (there is your term Tim) aka non-voting.

We have a Chair, Vice-chair, Clerk, Vice-All (all elders) the Chair of the Deacons and Chair of Administration comm (who is not an office-bearer).  We also have a recording clerk also ex-officio who handles the minutes and some communication. We have given the Executive a mandate with some limited decision capacity and minor spending ability. The significant decisions remain with council and they receive reports of each Exec meeting and they are asked to approve the work done. We, like Tim, operate on a consensus basis with open discussion. It has worked out fairly well with the key elements being trust and good communication. 

We meet with Executive each month, and the Elders each month and Council about 5 times a year. 

Blessings

In our church we have a full council (elders and deacons) as well as a small 'Administrative Council'. I'm assuming your 'Executive Committee' is analogous to that.

Our Admin Council is similar to yours in that it normally includes the chair of council, vice, and clerk as well as the senior pastor and our part-time operations manager. I don't see any problem with a non-pastor/elder/deacon being on the admin team, but I suppose a legitimate point could be raised about whether staff (pastor or not) should be voting or non-voting (what's the fancy name for that again? can't recall).

In our case, voting power never really seemed to be an issue we thought about. Our small admin team operated on a consensus basis, and most of what we did seemed to be either monitoring implementation or making recommendations to the full council which was the vote that really counted anyway. Our administrative council was more of a working group; the real decision-making power is with the full council.

I'm sure others can give a much better church order explanation of how it should work (Henry DeMoor's excellent Church Order Commentary likely covers this) but hopefully this perspective helps a bit in the meantime.

Thoughts from others?

The RCA book of worship has a short "Order for Second Service" that might work well.

Amen! Thanks for sharing, Bruce.

It is true that we get caught up in our meetings and we forget to let God in on the plans being made. Every meeting no matter how it is being conducted must be lead by Christ. We as a council should take a look at how we do His work and, are we letting Him lead and ensuring that we are following the Will of God in our meetings.

Yes, Steve we do it in our church and I for one was healed.

Sam Crockett

Good article, Keith.  Scripture indicates qualifications for elder, and I wonder how seriously the quality of "being able to teach" (teaching scripture, faith and life) is taken into consideration when potential elders are considered. 

Lovely, Louis.  And encouraging.  Thank you.

This is a very thoughtful article on depression and how the church can help.

Larry

Michele,

Well said.  Too bad that we humans cover up our mental illness like Adam and Eve covered up their nakedness. In the church we created the climate for this to happen.  Would that we had more Pastor Phillips'.

My mental pain was described best by William Styron in his book Darkness Visible.  " If the pain were readily describable most of the countless sufferers from this ancient affliction would have been able to confidently depict for their friends and loved ones (even their physicians) some of the actual dimensions of their torment, and perhaps elicit a comprehension that has been generally lacking; such incomprehension has usually been due not to failure of sympathy but to the basic inability of healthy people to imagine a form of torment so alien to everyday experience."

I tried to describe the pain I experienced from mental illness in my book, This Poison Called Depression.

Pastor Larry Van Essen

 

First, mental illness has nothing to do with merit, so to imply that other people deserve to suffer from depression because they aren't as helpful as he was is cruel and adds a burden that they don't need.

Second, the reason he was able to help so many people is probably BECAUSE he suffered from depression himself. The pain of mental illness has spurred many sufferers to help others in a way physical pain may not have.  There is something about mental anguish only those who have been through it can understand in a world where stigma still holds people back from seeking help.  So many people who don't know what it's like to suffer from a mental illness still heap shame on those who do.  So if people like this pastor came out and spoke about their pain more willingly, they would help even more people than he did by keeping it a secret.

Very good post. Mother Theresa had a similar experience; and many pastors probably suffer in secret. And I think of our colleague who suffered from severe depression and disappeared a year and a half ago. Wounded healers.

Well Keith, it sounds like the right nerve may have been touched upon, at least by you Keith, Pete, and Jeff and perhaps others.  Keith: “When a preacher truly experiences God, that is bound to profoundly affect the content of the sermon.”  Pete: “Spiritual poverty may well be the adaptive issue that is creating the symptom you name as poor preaching.”  And Jeff: “The Spirit will do what he wants with our work, whether that is through a greater display of his power or through his ordinary operations, but his work is a vital part of sermon preparation and delivery, and should be intentionally attended to.”  I may be reading into your collective comments, but I’m sensing an opinion that our CRC ministers today could well be lacking in a spiritual vitality and even commitment to God, and when such vitality is lacking so will sermons be lacking in vitality and unction (the anointing of the Holy Spirit).  So Keith, is this where our CRC ministers are falling down on the job of being effective preachers?  Do you think this is the reason for what you see as poor preaching?  Lack of commitment to God, a lack of spiritual vitality? A lack of imploring the Holy Spirit to bless the ministers work?

I suppose the same could be said of any job, especially in roles of leadership and high responsibility.  If there is not a high level of commitment to the company and to the responsibilities that you hold, you will not likely achieve a high level of accomplishment.  But of course, in the church, we couch these sentiments in the working of the Holy Spirit and commitment to Christ, and spiritual vitality. How would you define this root cause of poor sermonizing?  You must find a way to define this deficiency so it can be addressed.

I hope you realize that this concern is not new, even at the seminary level.  From my understanding of what’s happening at our seminary, the spiritual development of each student is a key and core concern throughout the seminary program.  It seems to me that more is being done today than ever has been done in the past to address this issue. The nurture of the student’s spirit has been given a priority as never before.  If anything ministers of the long past in our denomination came up short on the spiritual shepherding aspect of their education.  In the past academics was the main concern, not spiritual vitality.  Spiritual vitality was just assumed.

And as candidates sit before Classis to be examined, the candidates spiritual vitality and commitment is never glossed over.  You must be well aware of that, after having witnessed many examinations yourself.  And isn’t the spiritual well being of the minister one of the significant concerns of the elders in their role of serving the church?  So where does this lack of Christian commitment and love for the Lord creep into the minister’s life that causes substandard sermons?

And how would you measure the proper level of commitment to the Lord and the high calling of being a minister?  If you were a southern Pentecostal, you might point to the ability to handle snakes with your bare hands.  If you were a more moderate Pentecostal, you might say that the ability to speak in tongues validates your commitment to Christ and his Spirit.  If you were a committed Baptist Christian you might point the Lord’s guiding voice directing you, even in the small decisions of life.  If you are a Reformed Christian you might point to one’s willingness to give at least a full tenth of one’s salary to the work of the church.  Pity the minister who doesn’t set the standard for the rest of the congregation.  For some others a commitment to a Christian Sabbath observance and celebration of such Sabbath is an indicator of one’s love for the Lord.  Others will point to their personal relationship with Christ through his Spirit as a significant affirmation of one’s spiritual vitality. By this close and personal relationship it becomes much easier to discern WWJD (What Would Jesus Do).  Other Christians, of whatever stripe, will point to one’s devotional life as an indication of commitment to God and his word. How many devotional hours a day do you spend in the word?  Others will want to know what kind of prayer life you have and do you really believe in the power of answered prayer?  Or what are you willing to sacrifice for the Lord, a second car, a bedroom for each of the kids, stylish clothes, time with your family so you can spend more time at church? You see this is really where the slope gets slippery.  We might all suggest something different that would validate ours or the minister’s commitment to the Lord.  It’s very subjective, and is based on my own opinion as to what validates real commitment to the Lord.

The minister you mentioned, Keith, that was offended by the woman asking about his spiritual walk with God, may have actually been fearful that he might not meet this woman’s criteria of spirituality and therefore was hesitant to answer.  And probably an answer of “my walk is fine.  Thank you for asking,” would not have satisfied her.  

My mom, several years ago was in the hospital and attended by a nice nurse.  My mom, being a committed Baptist Christian, asked this nurse if she was a Christian, to which the nurse said, yes, I am.  My mom, not quite satisfied, asked further, “what I mean, are you a Bible believing Christian, to which the nurse said, yes I am.  But still not quite satisfied, my mom asked further, what I really mean are you a “born again” Christian?  And then do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?  My mom explained to me that she just knew in her heart that this nurse was not a true Christian and wanted to pin her down so she could witness to her.  We all have our subjective criteria as to what constitutes true commitment to God and spiritual vitality, and I know I will not pass the test of many Christian critics.  And probably many of our ministers will fail these tests, as well.

So if the problem of poor preaching is caused by a lack commitment or not fully experiencing God what standard will you apply in determining a minister's spiritual fitness for ministry and the difficult task of preparing weekly sermons that are spiritually uplifting?

I would be interested in your response to the proposal to reform Christmas by unblending or disentangling the secular and sacred traditions. The proposal is introduced in a related "Issues" post.

Interesting, isn't it, that comments about a Free Lunch tend the ignore those who have amassed great fortunes by finding "Free Lunches" in the tax code over the years?

 

Thanks very much for your testimony, Keith.

Thanks for this Keith. Such a revealing of yourself and God's work on you helps me understand and relate to what you are saying better. In my view you are closer here to naming the real core problem than in a "headline" that shouts about poor preaching. Spiritual poverty may well be the adaptive issue that is creating the symptom you name as poor preaching. It creates it in the pew and in pastors. Now we are talking!

Thanks, Roger, I'll take your words and reflect on them more deeply.  I realize, looking at my comment, that it might be a little hyperbolic.  Yes, I've heard (and preached) some stinkers too, but I've been able to be edified even by those that I've heard.  I recall a poem that Rog Van Harn had in one of his books about "Pew Rights" that talks about "listening for the one sentence", and found that to be true.  There is always that "one sentence" in every sermon.

 And by asking about unction I'm certainly not trying to say that God has somehow "turned his back" on the minister or congregation.  If that was my view, how could I have said that I was edified in the first place?   The Spirit will do what he wants with our work, whether that is through a greater display of his power or through his ordinary operations, but his work is a vital part of sermon preparation and delivery, and should be intentionally attended to.

It's confession time, and this is only a slight digression from the topic. I will come around to Roger's comment about 'Spirit-filled preachers'.

I was asked a while ago to offer my personal testimony to a large gather of Christian media folks.

I began by saying that I always knew God: I grew up in a Christian home, attended Sunday school, the requisite Christian schools, and had a deep passion for the church. I owned a Christian newspaper, then worked in the national offices of three different Christian denominations -- Christian Reformed, Presbyterian and Anglilcan (Episcopal). I knew God, but it was a theoretical knowledge. I spoke the church language, served several terms as elder (usually chair of council) in several different locations.

It was only after I left my last 'church' job and spent a few months at home in prayer and 'letting go', that I finally began to 'experience' God. It took 60 years to move from my head down to my heart. For the first time in my life, I began to depend on God .. for everything. I finally realized what it meant to walk with God ... after mouthing those words for decades.

Roger concludes his latest piece with an interesting and pointed question: "Is the absence of this anointing by the Holy Spirit what makes CRC ministers poor preachers?" I would never, ever dare question a pastor's faith, especially as it relates to 'poor' preaching.  I do recall an incident many years ago when a parishioner asked to meet with her pastor. When they sat down in his office, she asked him: "How is your spiritual walk with God?" He was deeply offended. How could she dare ask him -- the pastor -- about his spiritual walk?  She was, and still is, a godly woman who was genuinely concerned about the pastor's spiritual life.

Maybe we need to ask that question more often of our pastors. After all, it is regularly asked as part of the traditional family visit ... if we still do that. And perhaps those who are concerned about the proverbial 'poor preaching' should sit down with that pastor and ask that pointed question ... without causing offense.

When a preacher truly experiences God, that is bound to profoundly affect the content of the sermon.

Keith, it seems that you have written an article that has touched some nerves out in the CRC audience.  There’s been several interesting and good responses.  Jeff’s and my latest response must have been sent in at about the same time, because (even though Jeff’s response came in prior to mine) I didn’t see that post before I had posted.  I appreciate, Jeff, your thoughts and wanted to respond, but I do think you are standing on a slippery slope as you comment.  I don’t expect many others to agree with me as to my forthcoming comments, but I’ll say them anyway.  And Jeff, I imagine your comments resonated with many readers.

A comment about bad and good listening.  It seems as though you are saying, if you come to church in the right spirit, a spirit of hungering and thirsting for the word of God, then you’re much more likely to receive from the Holy Spirit’s bounty.  I love the minister at the church I attend regularly.  As far as I can discern I come to church with the same hope and expectation weekly.  But let me tell you, I’ve heard some real pearls and some real lemons from the same beloved preacher.  Now it might be true that there is truth in all the sermons I hear but some definitely are lacking in inspiration and take home value.  But apparently that isn’t true for you.

Now, a word about this “unction” or “anointing by the Holy Spirit.”  As you suggest, Jeff, it’s hard to pin down, which means, to me, that you are now standing on the slippery slope.  You have crossed over into the area of subjectivism.  It seems to me that you, as a preacher, do your utmost to do your exegetical and homiletical diligence and then leave your sermon with God to make it effective with your congregants.  What minister doesn’t pray that God will bless his efforts?  You make it sound like this kneeling and begging God to add to your sermon the anointing of the Holy Spirit is something that the minister can promote somehow by his actions.  Can we manipulate the Spirit into making our efforts even better? And why would it require some profound exercise by the minister for the Holy Spirit to use this sermon in the lives of the congregation?  Doesn’t the Holy Spirit want to bless all those coming to church to hear a meaningful sermon; and if the minister has done his due diligence, why would God turn his back on the minister and congregation?  What would you expect a seminary homiletical class to teach as far as being Spirit filled preachers?  Is there some kind of Holy Spirit wizardry that many (if not most, according to Keith) ministers are missing out on in seminary?  Is the absence of this unction or anointing by the Holy Spirit what makes CRC ministers poor preachers?  Your comments raise some red flags and muddies the water when it comes to evaluating effective preaching.  But I’m sure you don’t stand alone.

Apparently, Keith, you haven’t heard (or read) a response that quite satisfies you.  You still think that (in general) the preaching in the CRC has become poor and is the main culprit for people leaving the denomination.  Apparently “pew sitting CRC members know a good sermon when they hear one.”  So I’m guessing that the constant in this equation is your hearing.  Your judgement (of sermons) has remained the same, as it has for most pew sitting CRC members.  What has changed in the formula is only the sermon.  And according to your original comments, sermons today (in the CRC) are little more than fluff.  You even have questioned whether some of the safeguards along the way have become relaxed or removed so that today poor preachers are allowed to enter through the starting gates of ministry, and hence unload sub standard sermons on CRC congregations.

You mentioned your recent retirement as the stated clerk of a Classis.  Then you know, as well as anyone, that the last safeguard, the last gate, that these ministers (or wanna-be ministers) must pass through is the Classical examination before entering into ordained ministry. And of course, a key element of these examinations is sermon evaluation (New Testament, Old Testament, and Catechism).  As many of these exams that you have sat through, Keith, how many candidates did you see fail because of a poor sermon?  Probably not many.  Perhaps someone should point the finger at that final safeguard, and say, there lies the fault.  Perhaps it is these pew sitting CRC members who should tighten the reigns on who gets through that final gate. After a student has finally made it through all the intermediary safeguards, it’s the final, and perhaps the most comprehensive, safeguard that has let the candidate and our churches down.  So perhaps your concern should be presented to our Classes before they examine new candidates.

I also think, Keith, that there likely has been a shift, over the last several years, as to the criteria for judging a good sermon.  What you (or the average pew sitting CRC member) may judge to be a good sermon, may no longer hold true for the new and perhaps more evangelical church member.  What you consider “fluff” may be a gripping illustration for the newer and less traditional member.  And it does seem likely that the target audience the CRC is trying to reach has changed over the last several years.  In the past, growth from within our churches was where we set our sights.  Now that our churches are experiencing much less growth from within (even a backward trend) our sights have been set on our communities and the world out there.  We have become more evangelical.  And that will have an impact on preaching, and the training of preachers.  Hence the disappearing act when it comes to catechism preaching, especially in new church plants and churches that are trying to become a vitalizing force in their communities.  With the changes that are taking place in our denomination, it would seem natural that this change will impact preaching as well.  And such change or impact on preaching may constitute poor preaching in the minds of some.

 

Thanks for bringing the point back to the discussion, Keith.  

I hear what you are saying, and at the same time just have to mention that as a solo pastor I get about one Sunday night off a month.  Since that has become my pattern, I have to say that I haven't heard a bad sermon.  I have always been able to get something edifying out of anything that has been preached.  I am eager to hear the word of God preached by someone else than myself, to be a receiver, and so I find myself taking in the sermon more like a hungry man and less like a foodie.  So yes, there is definitely a congregational component.  There can be bad listening as well as bad preaching.

That isn't meant to be a dodge, just an observation.

But to reflect on your question, as well as Roger's rhetorical question about Peter's sermon, we might say that yes, it had substance, or exegetical integrity.  We might also say that it had homiletical skill.  But it had more.  It had what older writers such as EM Bounds or Martyn Lloyd Jones referred to as "unction".  While hard to pin down, Lee Eclov defines unction as "the anointing of the Holy Spirit upon a sermon so that something holy and powerful is added to the message that no preacher can generate, no matter how great his skills."  We have all had those times when the Spirit "takes things out of our hands" and does something with a sermon that we would not say is our best.  At the same time, we may preach a sermon that is exegetically sound and homiletically skilled but that falls, as one of my professors put it "from the pulpit like a wingless duck."

Is unction the thing that our sermons are lacking?  Fred Craddock talks about the two chairs of preaching.  There is the hard, straight chair of exegetical legwork, what we are to say.  Then we are to move to the more comfy homiletical chair, where we formulate how we are to say it.  But there is a third chair, that perhaps must be paid more attention to, and that is the chair at which we kneel and beg God to add to our work what only He can.  I would be interested in hearing how preaching classes intentionally emphasize the Spirit's role in sermon preparation and delivery.

 

 

Thanks, folks, for your varied responses and for the interesting tangents that this discussion took.
I do understand that congregations are fickle and that a pastor can fit in wonderfully in one congregation but not in another.
I also understand the pain of churches and pastors in conflict and the growing need for transitional pastors and specialists to deal with that pain..
I do think that you've missed the fundamental point of the initial question: Why do we have pastors who preach poorly?
 
Your natural reaction as a pastor is to blame the congregation for being stressed or anxious or finicky. You've got to protect your own.
I think it was Peter who mentioned that "the quality of preaching can never be measured." I beg to differ. When a church loses it members because of what those members describe as poor preaching, that's measurable.
Maybe, just maybe, a more appropriate term is 'lazy' preaching. When one sits in the pew and hears a sermon that lacks substance and that clearly hasn't had much thought put into it, that's lazy preaching. When pastors are more prone to exegete a TV show or the latest newscast, that's lazy preaching.  Granted, perhaps those pastors consider their preaching 'relevant'.
Is it being old fashioned to expect a pastor to 'preach the text'?

I am delighted that Seminary's Center for Excellence in Preaching regularly puts on touring workshops across the denomination. Their very existence underscores the need for excellence in preaching.

And perhaps Seminary should create a Centre for Excellence in Discerning, Listening, Tolerance for those of us in the pew who are at the receiving end of that solitary Sunday morning sermon.

I don't envy today's pastor/preacher. He/she has a tough audience. Preaching isn't for the faint-hearted, nor for the lazy, nor for the person who is looking for a soft job and a fat cheque (check). Congregations not only deserve excellence in preaching; it's crucial in equipping the saints for the working world and the battles that exist in the trenches.

Hey Jeff,  nothing wrong with being moved as long as there is substance.  I think what I picked up in Keith's original article is that sermons today are often lacking in substance.  And likewise, Christianity that is based on an emotional experience without substance does not go the distance in giving a solid foundation for life and thought.  Do you think there was substance to Peter's preaching at Pentecost?  That's a rhetorical question.

One humorous subtext in all this discussion is the assumption that if the sermon "moves" people, there must be something wrong with it.  

Guess the Apostle Peter really let down the team when those 3000 people responded on Pentecost.  

Thanks Pete for your latest comment.  I think you are onto something here when you speak of the emotional dynamics involved with preaching.  I’ve seen, as may have others, a preacher to be considered terrible in one congregation, and then all of sudden be wonderful in another new congregation.  It can go from “we hate his/her preaching” in one setting, to “we love his/her preaching” in a different setting.  This just goes to show the very subjective nature of evaluating a preacher and his/her preaching.  I remember, from the past, a minister with a great singing voice, who would interject a song as part of his sermon occasionally.  One congregation loved this occasional practice, the next hated it and wanted him discharged from ministry.  There were definite emotional dynamics involved.   And yet, in both, the actual preaching was the same.  Again the evaluation of preaching is, in big part, subjective.  Even when using objective evaluation forms to evaluate a particular sermon, the comments from different evaluators will vary greatly, from high grades to failing.  Again it’s very subjective.  

And it also seems to me that popular Christianity, including the CRC brand, is moving increasingly to a more experiential expression of it’s faith.  Increasingly, our creeds and confessions are getting lip service while my personal experience is getting front stage.  (What is happening to catechism preaching or the second service?)  So what may have been considered solid substantial preaching in the past is not nearly as appreciated as a heart wrenching and moving sermon today.  Or the three point sermon of the past doesn’t get as high marks as a moving narrative that tugs at the heart.  Again, this says something to the subjective nature of evaluating what goes into a good sermon. It doesn’t depend as much on the quality of the sermon as the perspective of the listener.  Other times it may simply be the age or personality of the minister that determines the quality of the sermon in the mind of the listeners.  Again, subjectivity.

It also seems to be true that Christianity itself is very subjective.  Increasingly, you can make the Bible say what you want.  Hence, the thousands of different Christian denominations.  I even hear voices, from within our own CRC, voicing that the blending of different Christian groups, or accommodating them, is a good thing.  Of course that broadens the scope of what many CRC people will fit into what they believe.  And so the base by which you evaluate a minister and his preaching also broadens, causing one member appreciate a particular sermon, while another devalues it.  Again, subjectivity.  This just shows that the evaluation of sermons is no easy task and there will always be differences of opinion.  I doubt that the problem will go away, even with the sincere and genuine efforts made by our seminary and denomination.

Keith, there was something else niggling at me from what you wrote, and I think I have some clarity on it now. To fully understand my abbreviated describing of it, it will help if you know a bit about the writings of Edwin Friedman (A failure of Nerve) and Peter Steinke's follow up work. They are making us aware that we do well to pay attention to the emotional dynamics in a system, be it a family or a congregation or denomination. And within that, especially watching the negative and destructive power of anxiety. (See also Bert Witvoet's article in the Christian Courier "A History of Conflict") Anxiety can rule the roost and run things even as leaders are trying to do a good job of leading. Until it is 'outed' and named and begun to be addressed, solutions will not be found easily. In my own reading, interacting with people and thinking on what I observe, I have come to believe that our Immigrant History has left us with a lot of people who are emotionally immature in our churches as a result of emotional stunting from traumas like WWII, immigration itself, and beginning a hardscrabble new life in Canada. To name just three biggies. Maybe church battles would be a fourth. I find that these folks tend to be the wellspring of the anxiety I encounter in my work as a Specialized Transitional Minister. It is hard to immunize oneself to it. It is hard to attenuate the effect of anxiety in a church. It works like yeast. Often I have found myself in the past jumping on a soapbox to make declarations about some symptom or another of some problem or another. But I have come to learn it was a mix of the anxiety of others and of my own that was primarily energizing that. Not calm considered leading. And it was not effective to any real good.

So here's where I think I see it in your post. It's right at the beginning when you write:

It comes in the form of a question and it is always asked with considerable anxiety: "Why is there such poor preaching in the CRC?"

I put in the bolding. There is anxiety in the CRC system, possibly more so in Canada than in the south. Anxiety is a more important thing to notice and address than the thing(s) it wants to point fingers at. Anxiety makes us accusatory, and does not let us see big pictures, and networks of causality. It wants simple linear blameability. It scapegoats. (See Rene Girard)

Notice I am not denying some poor preaching might exist. But I do not see it as the sole biggie in our mix of challenges. Anxiety is of more concern in that regard.

One of the things we are trying to do through the aforementioned Lilly Grant program at the Seminary right now is listen to the church and start conversations in the wider church precisely to see if we can possibly come up with a common answer to the question Michael raises: What constitutes a "good sermon"?  I doubt there is broad consensus on this and not sure if we can arrive at one but we're trying.  I would love to engage in a broad spectrum education of also those who listen to sermons to help them be more incisive listeners and feedback providers but that is a big project.   Still, these Lilly projects at CTS and in many other places and the wider consultations they are eliciting might advance this particular ball down the field.

Well, let’s take a stab at really fixing it.

I’m not a big one for increasing the bureaucracy (actually I hate the idea), but it seems to me that the oversight that makes us good enough to become eligible for a Call is still needed once we’ve settled into that Call. Yes, I know that the elders are responsible for overseeing the preaching in their own congregations, but sometimes (and maybe more regularly) an outside ear can offer some helpful perspective. So, what would happen if we formed a classical preaching review committee?

  1. Regular and frequent review of preaching in each congregation;
  2. Evaluations based on a universal set of criteria;
  3. Review of evaluations by a meeting of pastors every 2 months (or so).

This is a basic idea, and in all honesty it means a lot more work for a lot of people. But, are our people worth better preaching? I’m open to suggestions and refinement (or scrapping altogether) of this plan.

Other than the time involved, I believe the biggest hurdle to this is a universal set of criteria that defines a ‘good sermon.’ We’ve all been helped (or been the victim of) the Calvin Sem. Sermon Evaluation Form. Is this a good set of criteria? Can it be made better? What is the thing we seem not to be getting right about preaching in the CRC? Let’s pin something down and move forward.

Comments? 

Keith, I hear both your frustration and your agonized concern, though the frustration came through kinda loud and made your concern not so evident at first.

I have thought or keyboarded many such expressions of frustration myself. The guy in me that does that wanted to write one back saying 'The biggest problem in the church is reactionary, single symptom focused outbursts that keep us from really talking.' But that would be doing the very thing I was trying to decry. So I'm just admitting I was tempted to make it a CRC issue hockey fight, but am going to keep the gloves on and talk it out.

I too am very concerned and am gathering facts (so many of us speak out of perception) where I can find them to see if my perceptions are in line with reality. I am also gathering stories.

Quality of preaching can of course really never be measured. And there are zillions of factors, such as the zillions of variation of expectations of the people you spoke with and the multiplicity of ways of communicating gospel truth a particular preacher may use. If they don't line up, you will hear the things you did. Who is teaching the people in the pew what fitting expectations are? Their Television? Why do you not explore or challenge their expectations with them?

What you are naming is, I have come to believe, simply one symptom of an unhealthy system. To declare it the one cause of imminent demise comes across as narrow minded. A system such as our denomination and it's institutions is a complex web of causes and effects. As such then, at least in my view, poor preaching by itself cannot be the thing that is "killing" a denomination. It might be the medical equivalent of a raspy throat that is a sign of a deeper problem. Sure, meds can be taken to bring the voice back, but the root ailment remains.

I do believe we are unwell as a denomination, and I do believe this is a great opportunity to stop and do some deep reflection, individually, and collectively. I believe it is a God given opportunity. But if we don't get beyond expressing fear and frustration and singular category accusations, the decline will continue.

This is such a hard topic to address with any objectivity. Nobody wants to trash Calvin Seminary, and nobody wants to think that their preaching is the cause for the downfall of their congregation, but... it all adds up.

I give Scott Hozee credit for outlining the Sem’s tack on putting preaching into more of a central part of a seminarian’s education. (also, he wrote a good blog article that sums up the stress of the question from a pastoral standpoint at: http://network.crcna.org/blog/whats-preacher-do ). We’ve all felt that pinch of envy when someone in our flock quotes a rock-star preacher who speaks his own (trite? humanistic? heretical, even?) words to thousands each Sunday – and still is a rock-star. How do we compete? Should we? On what level?

Sorry, Scott – I am one of the 50%rs who did not do the bulk of my sem work at Calvin. And, a couple of things shocked me during my EPMC in 2008:  1) The little experience in actual sermon writing and preaching that Calvin students were getting compared to my education (God knows I needed the extra work). That may be getting corrected through many of the improvements Scott outlined here. If so, that’s awesome – practice may not really ‘make perfect’, but it is how you get to Carnegie Hall.  2) Some of the examples of ‘not boring’ = ‘good’ preaching techniques given to me were actually from people who are less-than-Christ-centered in their preaching. Barbara Brown Taylor and Jeremiah Wright Jr. are awesome public speakers, but many times even their method (as well as words) blurs or even detracts from Christ and his cross. Passion about ‘spiritual’ things does not equal a ‘good’ sermon if Christ is not central. 

So, there’s the delicate line Calvin (or any) Sem walks: teaching people with many different gifts how to connect gospel preaching to an increasingly wide variety of people over a lifetime in segments of 30 min. or less. Calvin (and other sem’s) has a tough job. Christo-centric preaching is necessary, and passionate Christo-centric preaching is even more so in today’s culture. I continue to pray for all preachers: that their passion for Christ’s gospel is the central point of their life, and that that comes through when they speak to the people God has given them each week.

Thank you so much, Scott, for pointing out the painstaking efforts that Seminary and its professors take in teaching, training and mentoring potential pastors.

I am particularly impressed by the work of the Center for Excellence in Preaching and for the amount of 'traffic' that the website receives. It is my hope and prayer that pastors continue to use the excellent resources that the Center offers, both online and in person.

The pulpit continues to be the single most effective way to disciple, teach and grow the congregation. Within an hour on a Sunday morning, the pastor is able to reach hundreds of men, women, young adults and children with a message that reveals God's grace, holiness, covenant relationship and love for his people. That is an incredible responsibility and opportunity.

To Larry (and I hope Keith is looking on as well): Thank you for your post (and thanks to Lou Tamminga for his initial reply).   Just a few comments so as to let those reading these posts know that we at Calvin Seminary both know how vital preaching is and some of what we are doing to improve that preaching.

1) We work very hard at the Seminary to filter out those whom we deem to be ungifted as preachers.   And we do filter some out, though no one knows about that as they never become preachers.  But we do not simply "hold our noses" and palm off disastrous preachers on the church.  That said, three other considerations: first, the shank of candidacy decisions was taken away from the Seminary years ago and is now handled by Synod and a denominational candidacy committee.  They do good and diligent work, but we at the Seminary do get overruled now and then.  Second, in terms of GPA and academic standards, we simply cannot deny graduation--and then through the denomination we cannot deny candidacy--to students who may be C+ or B- preachers.   We can try to steer them into other pastoral avenues of chaplaincy, counseling, pastoral care positions, etc. but just because we suggest to a student that his preaching is rarely going to rise above the level of a middling sermon does not prevent that student from pursuing a pulpit ministry (and now and then somewhat bad preachers are convinced they are actually very good and only John Rottman and I seem unable to see it and so . . .).   Finally, in recent years--again due to synodical decisions in this area--close to 50% of the candidates in the July "Banner" every year did NOT go to Calvin Seminary and so we are able to have essentially no influence over their preaching education whatsoever.

2) Ten years ago the way we taught preaching at Calvin Seminary changed significantly and our efforts at homiletics changed still more about about 6 years ago when we revamped the curriculum.   That new curriculum included weaving preaching more intentionally throughout the student's education, including in every single Bible core course, which is now co-taught by both the Bible Department Professor and a Preaching Professor.   I believe we have graduated much better preachers the last 5-10 years but it takes time for this to be felt far and wide across the denomination.  Of course it's also true that even with our efforts, many CTS graduates are more "pretty good" than "excellent" but the point is, we are trying.

3) The Center for Excellence in Preaching exists to help our preachers through the website and our conferences (although often both seem more utilized by non-CRC preachers than CRC ones).   This month alone nearly 15,000 different preachers have come to the website at least once (that is 15 times more than the total number of CRCNA pastors working right now so we know our reach is far and wide beyond the CRC too).   The same number came during November.   We offer outstanding resources but we cannot force anyone to use them (and I am often surprised to run into CRC pastors who seem to know nothing at all about what we offer).

4) More to your point here, Larry: The Center for Excellence in Preaching is currently in the first year of a 3-year $500,000 grant funded by Lilly Endowment as part of its nationwide effort to increase the quality of preaching and of homiletical education at the seminary level (if anyone thinks poor preaching is unique to the CRCNA, please note that Lilly Endowment is investing many millions of dollars to address this across the board).   As part of this we are convening peer groups of pastors who are talking about how best to meet the communication challenges of preaching in the 21st century.   What's more, the Seminary is harvesting the learning from these groups (this year alone involving over 100 pastors) to help us teach preaching and to help working preachers better and better.  We are also working very hard on some new web tools that will become available in a year or so that will steer preachers to the very best of what the Internet has to offer preachers (and away from grim clearinghouses of bad stuff).   Lilly Endowment is also helping those of us who teach preaching to network with other seminaries who have also received grants (about a dozen-and-a-half seminaries now) so that we can all help each other meet today's preaching challenges (and they are substantial). 

All of this to say . . . we are working hard, we are listening to the church, we are devoting massive resources to produce the best preachers we can.  Will we ever graduate an entire class of A+ preachers?   Probably not.  But will more and more preachers produce solid, thoughtful, pastoral sermons that teach Scripture, proclaim grace, and so equip people for lives of discipleship?   Probably, and that is certainly our prayer.

-- Scott Hoezee

 

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