Summer is a great time of year — picnics, vacations, a slower pace. But it’s also a time when many churches see a downward trend in attendance. You know it’s coming, but that doesn’t make it any easier to stand in the pulpit on Sunday morning and see empty pews where there were full ones a few weeks before.
In a recent issue of his Creative Leader newsletter, Ed Young Jr. talked about dealing with the ups and downs of attendance: “Every church, no matter how large or small, eventually experiences low attendance phases that defy explanation. You can drive yourself to distraction trying to figure out the reason, when it could be something as unrelated as a hot football playoff season.
“Never let your personal worth rise and fall with the peaks and valleys of your attendance numbers. You are a unique creation and so is your church, so don’t fall into the comparison trap. Just because most churches experience a bump on Mother’s Day doesn’t mean you will — instead, you might see higher attendance in the summertime than others. Seek God’s guidance closely, talk to other pastors, learn as much as you can, and remain true to the vision you’ve been given. Those seasons of struggle are often followed by explosive growth!”
Michael Duduit, Editor
Click here to visit “I Was Just Thinking” (Michael’s blog) for insights and observations about faith and culture issues.
Preaching God’s story, not ours
In the Winter 2007 issue of Fuller Seminary’s Theology News & Notes, New Testament scholar Marianne Meye Thompson asks: “What would it mean to let the gospel be your guide in preaching? In order to reflect on that counsel, we must come back to the question, what is the gospel? First and foremost, the gospel is God’s action, God’s story, God’s saving initiative toward the world which he has created. It bears repeating: the gospel is God’s story.
To preach the gospel, then, means sentences in which God is the subject of active verbs. Beginning with accounts in Genesis and moving through the book of Revelation, it’s easy to make quite a list of all that God does: God speaks, creates, judges, calls, sends, saves, delivers, feeds, clothes, promises, loves, shows mercy and kindness, does justice, and so on. To preach the gospel is to proclaim the accounts of the Scriptures in light of the fact that their central character is God, and that the gospel is from God and about the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit.
I am reminded of a sermon I heard on John 11, the raising of Lazarus. The story is the climactic “sign” in the Gospel of John testifying to Jesus’ identity as the resurrection and the life. Jesus’ sign of raising the dead bears witness to the glory of God, that is, to the power of God to give life to the dead through Jesus. The fledgling preacher told the story, leading up to the dramatic moment when Jesus calls out, “Lazarus, come forth!” This story is one that embodies the gospel in all its simplicity-the power of Jesus, the one sent by God, and his word to give life. But, apparently feeling it inadequate, the preacher added, “And now Lazarus had to make a decision.” It is, of course, a ludicrous picture: a dead man deciding whether or not to obey the word of Jesus! But the turn of this sermon illustrates something pernicious in much modern preaching: it is so easy to make the most powerful of Gospel stories center on human action and not on God, to think that somehow our actions, our decisions, are the heart and center of the gospel story. To make that move is to sell out the gospel.” (Click here to read the full article.)
Teens confused about how to get to heaven
A recent LifeWay Research survey of American teens shows that most believe in heaven but have mixed views about how to get there.
According to a May 23 Baptist Press story: Results show that 69 percent of teens believe heaven exists. Also, a majority strongly agree with the traditional Christian belief in Jesus Christ’s death for their sins as the reason they will go to heaven (53 percent). Yet while many teens believe they will go to heaven because of their belief in Jesus Christ, one-quarter trust in their own kindness to others (27 percent) or their religiosity (26 percent) as their means to get to heaven.
Out of the 69 percent of the teens who strongly or somewhat agree they will go to heaven because Jesus Christ died for their sins, 60 percent also agree that they will go to heaven because they are religious and 60 percent also agree they will go to heaven because they are kind to others.
That leaves approximately 28 percent of American teenagers who are trusting only in Jesus Christ as their means to get to heaven.
“This is where confusion and perhaps a bit of self-made salvation have crept in,” Scott Stevens, LifeWay’s director of student ministry, noted.” Why would teenagers feel the need to add anything to Jesus’ work on the cross? Maybe it’s because so many of them are fully engulfed in a performance-based existence where they are constantly striving to earn the favor and acceptance of those around them, especially those in positions of authority. How often do these teens experience unconditional love at home, school, or even in their church?”
“The central theme of Christianity is the person and work of Jesus Christ -– His death and resurrection,” said Scott McConnell, associate director of LifeWay Research, adding, “It is surprising that only about half the teenagers who attended a Christian church in the last month are depending solely on the grace of Jesus Christ to get to heaven.” (Click here to read the full article.)
ILLUSTRATION: Dishonesty, Integrity
After the Enron scandal a number of schools began to talk about ethics and values, however, this year has made the ubiquity of cheating a hot topic for educators. Duke University expelled 9 MBA students and gave out lesser punishments to 37 others in one of the largest cheating scandals in the country. The US Air Force Academy expelled 18 students for cheating. Ohio University has reported “rampant and flagrant” plagiarism by graduate students in engineering.
Even administrators have been caught cheating. The most prominent was the resignation of a dean of admissions at MIT whose resume contained fabrications — when she was first hired some 30 years ago. A Rutgers study of 32 universities showed 56% of MBA students admitting cheating; followed by 54% of grad students in engineering; and 45% in law. The undergraduates at those schools were even worse, with 74% of business students and 68% of students in other fields admitting to some form of cheating. Combating cheating is not only difficult, it can also prove costly — with the loss of tuition dollars, bad publicity, and often lawsuits to defend. (AP 5-19-07, via IvyJungle.org)
ILLUSTRATION: Grace, Salvation
David Jeremiah points out that in the 1980s, the Smith-Barney brokerage firm made a series of commercials in which distinguished actor John Houseman spoke the famous line, “We make money the old-fashioned way. We earn it!” Sometime later, based on that commercial, a Christian cartoonist showed some Pharisees arguing with Jesus about salvation. Their punch line? “We get our salvation the old-fashioned way. We earn it!”
Those commercials were a success partly because they appealed to something in fallen human nature: the desire to work and pay our own way. The Bible commends that attitude in many respects (2 Thess. 3:10), but not when it comes to salvation. The problem with earning our salvation is that we could never do enough. Committing one sin is the same as committing them all. And once a sin is committed, it’s like a spoken word — there’s no getting it back. The biggest challenge facing the early church was helping Jewish believers set aside law and tradition as a way of earning approval with God.
Don’t try to be saved the old-fashioned way. Receive salvation the way God offers it through Christ: as a gift of grace through faith. (Turning Point Daily Devotional, 5-29-07)
FROM THE JULY-AUGUST ISSUE OF PREACHING . . .
Tommy McDearis is Pastor of Blacksburg Baptist Church near the campus of Virginia Tech University, and a police chaplain. In our cover story for this issue, he talks about that terrible day in Blacksburg, and about preaching in the aftermath of the shooting. He writes: “Answering the phone I heard a member of the local rescue squad say, ‘Do you know what’s going on? There’s shooting — lots of it. Somebody’s inside Norris Hall and they’re shooting the place up. You better get to the hospital fast.’
Sensing the day was about to thrust me into places where instant identification would be crucial, I grabbed my badge and my police uniform from the closet. Before I could get dressed the phone was ringing again and again.
A police lieutenant yelled, ‘Pray! Pray hard! Don’t stop. Go to the hospital as fast as you can.’ Another call came from an unknown number. Though still unsure who it was, I will never forget the voice: ‘It’s terrible. Come quickly. We need your help.’
Within two minutes I was racing to the hospital and I could tell something truly terrible was unfolding. Law enforcement units from all over the region were streaming west toward Virginia Tech as I rushed east toward the hospital.
I called the lieutenant for an update. I had no idea he was personally loading injured and dying students into his police SUV and taking them two blocks away to the staging area, where ambulances were now lining up to transport the wounded. Asking where he was, he said, ‘I can’t talk now. Get to the hospital as fast as you can. This is bad. I’ve never seen anything like it.’”
Every issue of Preaching contains insightful articles on preaching, plus great model sermons and practical resources. If you’re not a current subscriber to Preaching magazine, click here (or call, toll free, 1-800-527-5226) to go begin your subscription!
Also in the July-August issue of Preaching: An article on preaching in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shooting tragedy, plus “Preaching the Big Idea,” Interviews with N.T. Wright and Dave Ferguson, the first in a series on “Preaching and Trinitarian Worship” by Michael Quicke, plus sermons by Stuart Briscoe, R. Albert Mohler, and much more. Order your subscription today!
LINK OF THE WEEK
Pray21 is a national youth initiative (sponsored by Christian Endeavour) to encourage teens and adults to pray together during 21 days in September, while empowering youth ministry in their church and community. To learn more — as well as to access tools and resources — visit the website at
ILLUSTRATION: Enemies, Age
In his Sunday sermon, the minister used “Forgive Your Enemies” as his subject. After the sermon, he asked how many were willing to forgive their enemies. About half held up their hands.
Not satisfied, he harangued the congregation for another twenty minutes and repeated his question. This received a response of eighty percent. Still unsatisfied, he lectured for fifteen more minutes and repeated his question. All responded except one elderly gentleman in the rear.
“Mr. Jones, are you not willing to forgive your enemies?” “I don’t have any.” “Mr. Jones, that is very unusual. How old are you?” “I’m 101”. “Mr. Jones, please come down in front and tell the congregation how a man can live to be 101 and not have an enemy in the world.”
The old man teetered down the aisle, slowly turned to face the congregation,
smiled and said, “I outlived every one of them!”
“Be a good listener. Your ears will never get you in trouble.” (Frank Tyger)
On the preacher’s bookshelf…
In the July-August issue of Preaching, Michael Quicke emphasizes the importance of pastors thinking seriously about worship. In that light, many readers will enjoy
Generations of Praise: The History of Worship (College Press Publishing) by Bruce Shields and David Butzu. They have provided a readable historical survey that will help us better understand the place and purpose of worship in our churches.
Flawed Families of the Bible (Brazos Press) by David and Diana Garland is subtitled “How God’s grace works through imperfect relationships.” They deal with biblical characters like Sarah and Hagar, Dinah, Tamar and others to show how God can work even in families where circumstances are less than ideal. Pastors will find ideas here for an interesting sermon series.
In The Character of Leadership (B&H Publishing), seminary president Jeff Iorg describes nine qualities that define great leaders, including integrity, purity, discipline and more. He makes that clear that leadership is not built on technique but on character.
ILLUSTRATION: Guilt, Confession
An applicant was filling out a job application. When he came to the question, “Have you ever been arrested?” he wrote, “No.”
The next question, intended for people who had answered in the affirmative to the previous question, was “Why?”
The applicant answered it anyway: “Never got caught.”
“It takes less time to do a thing right than it does to explain why you did it wrong.” (Henry Longfellow)
Don’t talk, just play
Here are some quotes from athletes and coaches that might have been better left unsaid:
* New Orleans Saint RB George Rogers when asked about the upcoming season…
“I want to rush for 1,000 or 1,500 yards, whichever comes first.”
* “Nobody in football should be called a genius. A genius is a guy like
Norman Einstein.” – Football commentator and former player Joe Theismann 1996
* “You guys line up alphabetically by height.” – Bill Peterson, a Florida
State football coach
* “You guys pair up in groups of three, then line up in a circle.” – Bill
Peterson, a Florida State football coach
* Boxing promoter Dan Duva on Mike Tyson hooking up again with promoter Don
King – “Why would anyone expect him to come out smarter? He went to prison for
three years, not Princeton.”
* Shaquille O’Neal on whether he had visited the Parthenon during his visit
to Greece – “I can’t really remember the names of the clubs that we went to.”
* Shaquille O’Neal, on his lack of championships – “I’ve won at every level,
except college and pro.”
* 1982 – Chuck Nevitt, North Carolina State basketball player, explaining to
Coach Jim Valvano why he appeared nervous at practice – “My sister’s expecting a
baby, and I don’t know if I’m going to be an uncle or an aunt.”
* 1991 – Steve Spurrier, Florida football coach, telling Gator fans that a
fire at Auburn’s football dorm had destroyed 20 books – “But the real tragedy
was that 15 hadn’t been colored yet.”
* 1996 – Lincoln Kennedy, Oakland Raiders tackle, on his decision not to
vote – “I was going to write myself in, but I was afraid I’d get shot.”
* 1991 – Torrin Polk, University of Houston receiver, on his coach, John
Jenkins – “He treats us like men. He lets us wear earrings.”
* 1987 – Shelby Metcalf, basketball coach at Texas A&M, recounting what he
told a player who received four F’s and one D – “Son, looks to me like you’re
spending too much time on one subject.”
* 1991 – Frank Layden, Utah Jazz president, on a former player – “I told
him, ‘Son, what is it with you. Is it ignorance or apathy?’ He said, ‘Coach, I don’t know and I don’t care.'” (from The Daily Dilly)
And finally . . .
On a hot summer day as you reach for a cold soft drink, imagine someone in Japan doing the same thing — except he may be reaching for a cucumber cola.
According to a June 13 AP article, “Japanese are staying cool as a cucumber this summer with ‘Pepsi Ice Cucumber’ — a new soda based on the crisp green gourd. The soft drink, which hit stores here on Tuesday, doesn’t actually have any cucumber in it — but has been artificially flavored to resemble ‘the refreshing taste of a fresh cucumber,’ said Aya Takemoto, spokeswoman of Japan’s Pepsi distributor, Suntory Ltd.”
The mint-colored soda is on sale just for the summer and only in Japan, with sales expected to reach 200,000 cases over the next three months.
Coming next: the refreshing taste of broccoli-flavored iced tea.