Sunday, April 29, 2007

Patron Saints

From The Way of the Fathers comes a quick and easy quiz to help you determine which of the Church Fathers is your kindred spirit. (And those who know me best will not be surprised to learn that I bear an astonishing resemblance to St. Melito of Sardis!)

Click on the title of this post for the link.

How to survive and thrive in graduate school

In The Blogging Parson, Michael Jensen offers 12 great suggestions for pastors who are taking graduate studies in theology. (And since he's working on a D.Phil. at Oxford, I'd say he knows what he's talking about!)

Click on the title of this post for the link.

Friday, April 27, 2007

"Power corrupts. PowerPoint corrupts absolutely" -- Edward Tufte.

This coming month, let's all try preaching without PowerPoint.

That's right: turn off the computer. Turn off the video projector. And see what we can do with just a Bible (and maybe some notes).

Why would I suggest something like that?

1. The jolly thing doesn't work!
As Debra Murphy noted in The Christian Century, it's a rare presentation in Powerpoint that doesn't jam, freeze, crash, or just sit there blinking at us. As a result, our church members either:
a) get to watch us reboot our computer in the middle of our sermon.
b) spend the entire sermon tensed-up and waiting for something to go wrong.
Neither option is really what I'd call "worship."

2. We don't know anything about graphics.
I'm sorry, but somebody has to say it: there is an incredible amount of religious art out there that is really dreadful -- and most of it seems to find its way into PowerPoint sermons. And even when we skip the pictures and slap a bunch of words onto the screen, the result are rarely attractive (and sometimes just plain illegible).

3. We don't have time to get it right.
It takes me roughly ten hours to write a sermon -- and I have to squeeze every minute of that out of a schedule that is already way too busy. Now add the time needed to prepare a PowerPoint presentation, and instead of a pretty-good sermon (and no PowerPoint), I will have:
a) a weaker sermon,
b) and a PowerPoint presentation that is riddled with mistakes.
Excuse me, but I don't think that's progress.

4. A good sermon doesn't need it.
What makes a good sermon?
a) an introduction that captures the attention of our audience,
b) a message that is based on Scripture,
c) an application that speaks to our needs,
d) and a conclusion that calls for committment.
Add some interesting illustrations, and the result is a sermon that might be even better with PowerPoint -- but it will still be pretty good without it. Then again, if a sermon lacks any one of these elements, then no amount of computer graphics will be able to save it.

So there you have it -- four reasons why I think every pastor should give up PowerPoint for the month of May. And no, I'm not asking us to give it up for the rest of our lives.

But if pastors were able to preach the Word of God for nearly 2,000-years without PowerPoint . . .

Then maybe we could try giving it up for a month?

(And if you'd like to read Edward Tufte's views on PowerPoint, then click on the title of this post.)

PS For some reason, the "comments" section has been turned off for this particular post -- and I can't figure out how to turn it back on! If you'd like to leave a comment, go ahead and do so on the post just above this one (i.e. the one about advice for pastors in graduate school).

Thursday, April 26, 2007

To err is human

Today's statistics are from Atul Gawande's book on why physicians make mistakes -- it's called Complications: a surgeon's notes on an imperfect science, and it's guaranteed to scare the liver out of you; it also made me think long and hard about the reasons why pastors make the mistakes we do.

Anyway, here are the statistics I promised:
  • 32% of the working-age population develops at least one serious mental disorder over the course of life. (And again, we're talking serious mental disorders here -- stuff such as major depression, mania, psychosis, panic disorder, or addiction.)
  • This means that, at any given time, anywhere from three-percent to five-percent of all practicing physicians are unfit to see patients. (Presumably, the same is true of plumbers, particle physicists, and pastors.)
Okay, so what does this mean for pastors (aside from the fact that it explains a lot of what goes on at pastors' meetings)?

Number one: stick around long enough, and you are just about guaranteed to be there when some of your church members go through serious mental illness.

Number two: chances are pretty good that a few of your church members are going through something like that right now.

And number three: if someone has been giving you a hard time lately, then you may want to consider the possibility that it may not be their fault -- not in the sense that you can really hold them responsible for their actions. Don't take it personally, in other words; you just happened to catch them at a rough time.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Se habla Adventist

Great article in The New York Times (albeit way too short) on the impact of Hispanics on the American Catholic Church. Among the findings:
  • One-third of American Catholics are now Hispanic.
  • Hispanic Catholics are more apt to be "charismatic," i.e. they're more apt to practice and believe in miraculous healings, prophecies and visions, as well as speaking in tongues.
  • And if they don't like what they see in the Catholic Church, then Hispanics are more apt than ever before to switch churches.
This last finding should come as no surprise to Adventists . . . though I was surprised by the find that Hispanics born and raised in the USA are more likely to convert to a Protestant church than first-generation immigrants. The Hispanic Adventist pastors to whom I've spoken have told me that first-generation immigrants are their best source of converts, while second- and third-generation Hispanics are just as difficult to reach as their Anglo counterparts. Any thoughts out there on this subject?

Then too, I'd be interested in knowing of any studies done on the impact of Hispanic immigration on Adventist churches in the USA. What does this mean in terms of theology and practices? Is there a charismatic flavor to Hispanic Adventism? And when the day comes that a third of all American Adventists are Hispanic, then what will this mean for our schools, our publishing houses, and our church leadership?

Click on the title of this post for the article.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Okay, so the BBQ would be a little tough for Adventists.

A sermon that's never more than 15-minutes in length -- guaranteed.

A three-song praise service by a rocking band.

And a BBQ after every meeting.

Those are just some of the draws of a men-only church group that meets on Saturday nights, once a month, in Daytona Beach, Florida. And with a regular attendance of just 70 men, it's not going to be on the cover of Christianity Today anytime in the near future.

But with women outnumbering men in most churches by a ratio of two-to-one . . . it might be something you might want to try in your church.

Click on the title of this post for the article.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Does it count if you get baptized in Second Life?

A truly odd article in the Los Angeles Times about LifeChurch.tv -- a brand-new congregation that hosts 3,900 worshippers . . . and at least one talking emu.

It's a church for avatars -- the on-line embodiments of the five million people who subscribe to the virtual world of Second Life. Most spend their time doing the kinds of thing you'd expect people to do if there were no police, no STDs, and no calories. Then again, an amazing number do nothing more risque than potter around in the garden, gossip with the neighbors, and go to church.

Hence LifeChurch.tv -- the on-line campus of a "real" church that meets in Oklahoma (with satellite branches in Arizona, Texas, Tennessee, and Florida). For $10,000, it was able to add a worship site on Second Life; this month it offered a "live" (more or less) Easter service. And while there's been some trouble with "griefers" (i.e. avatars who try to disrupt the service), the pastor seems happy with his new congregation.

Emus and all.

(Click on the title of this post for the article.)

Monday, April 16, 2007

And before your respond, keep in mind that Matthew 6:7 can apply to impromptu prayers just as much as written ones.

Article in The Chicago Tribune about the growing number of evangelical Christians who are praying "the liturgy of the hours" -- a series of written prayers (also known as "the Divine Office") based on the Psalms that are prayed at fixed times (usually morning, noon, evening, and just before bedtime.)

The reasons?
  • concern that the "free-form" prayers so common in conservative Protestantism can easily become trite and shallow.
  • the "emergent church" movement's emphasis on liturgy and mystery.
  • the publication of Phylis Tickle's easy guide to the Divine Office.
Myself, I'm in two minds about this. For the past few years, I've been using the Psalms as a basis for personal and congregational prayer -- one psalm per week, chosen from the Upper Room's Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants; I've found it helpful (as have the members of my church). I've also used Tickle's book as a guide for my personal devotions.

Then again, if you're as obsessive-compulsive as I am, the Divine Office too quickly becomes just another item that needs to be checked off the list; for that reason, there have been times I've had to set it aside.

Any thoughts out there?

(And if you want to read the article in the Tribune, click on the title of this post.)

Friday, April 13, 2007

Father Mulcahy wants you!

Interesting article in the Christian Science Monitor about the Army's attempt to recruit more chaplains -- right now, it's roughly 450 short of the 3,000 it would like to have, with National Guard and Army Reserve units the most in need.

The good news: you're definitely working with people who could use some help. What's more, the pay isn't bad: seminary students who sign up with the National Guard, for instance, can get a $10K signing bonus and up to $4,500 year for educational expenses -- and if you've already completed seminary, you can be forgiven as much as $20,000 in student loans.

The bad news: the prospect of violent death. Then too, signing up with the National Guard or Army Reserve commits you to one weekend of training per month -- and yes, that's kind of hard to manage if you're pastoring a two-church district on your own. But if you're an associate pastor whose church is willing to work with you on this (and you have an M.Div. and you're somewhere between the ages of 21 and 42), then . . .

Well, the least you could do is click on the title of this post for the article.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Now if I could just find time to take a vacation, I'd have all ten!

Check out the article by Speed Leas in this month's Leadership on the Ten Most Predictable Times of Conflict" -- according to Speed, these are:
  1. Easter.
  2. Budget time.
  3. Anytime you add new staff.
  4. Changes in leadership style
  5. Anytime the pastor goes on vacation.
  6. Changes in the pastor's family.
  7. Anytime baby boomers start attending your church.
  8. The completion of a new building.
  9. Loss of church membership.
  10. Gains in church membership.
Click on the title of this post for the article.

Friday, April 06, 2007

The death of Q?

Once asked how she planned to spend eternity, a Biblical scholar is supposed to have replied that it would take her that long just to sort out the Synoptic Problem!

"The Synoptic Problem" -- that's the term experts use to discuss the relationship of three gospels to each other: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. All three have roughly the same (syn) view (optic) of Jesus, but each of the three has its own idiosyncrasies.

For years, the standard view of Protestant scholars has been that the Gospel of Mark came first. The gospels of Matthew and Luke came next (and at roughly the same time). Both Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source; both also used a collection of Christ's sayings (now lost) that is known as Q (from the German word Quelle or "source"). What's more, Matthew and Luke each used additional sources that were unique to each gospel; the additional sources for these two gospels are known respectively as M and L. In short:
  • In the beginning was the Gospel of Mark.
  • Mark + Q + M = the Gospel of Matthew.
  • Mark + Q + L = the Gospel of Luke.
"What about Catholic scholars?" you ask.

Catholic scholars generally follow the view of Augustine of Hippo, i.e. Matthew came first, Luke used Matthew, and Mark edited both Matthew and Luke to come up with his gospel. In short:
  • In the beginning was the Gospel of Matthew.
  • Matthew + L = the Gospel of Luke.
  • Matthew + Luke + some heavy editing = the Gospel of Mark.
"What about the Gospel of John?" you ask.

Don't ask.

Just. Don't. Ask.

Anyway, that's been the debate so far -- but all this may change, thanks to a new book by Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: the Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. A professor of New Testament studies and Bishop Wardlaw Professor at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, Bauckham has spent a lot of time studying how stories get passed along in aural cultures, i.e. cultures that rely on word of mouth more than pen and paper.

His conclusion? The Synoptic Gospels do not rely on each other; instead, all draw on a "pool" of eyewitness accounts -- eyewitness accounts that give us an accurate and reliable picture of what actually happened in the life of Jesus.

Obviously, Bauckham's theory has some radical implications for how we interpret the gospels -- and as a reviewer noted in the Times Literary Supplement, Bauckham himself may not have realized what this implies about the date those gospels were actually written down. If Matthew and Luke did not depend on Mark, after all, then they may have been written much earlier than we currently suppose.

And no, I don't see this book changing my faith -- but it's definitely one book I'm going to read this year. And if you get a chance to read it, then drop me a note and we'll talk about it.

If we really are going to spend all eternity discussing the Synoptic Problem, after all, then we might as well get a head start!

Pastors' Wives

Good article in Time magazine on pastors' wives (PW) and their use of the Internet -- it seems that more and more PWs are using it to find the support they don't get in their husband's church. Among the statistics cited:
  • 84% of the women surveyed "did not feel prepared" for their husband's lifestyle as a pastor.
  • 80% of the women surveyed feel "unappreciated" or "unaccepted" by their husband's church.
  • Asked to list the biggest problem they face as a pastor's wife, the most common response is "loneliness" and "lack of friends."
The article concludes with the story of Rod and Stephanie Elzy -- an Adventist couple who saved their marriage only by leaving the pastorate.

Click on the title of this post for the article in Time.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Just another reason pastors should go last in line at potlucks.

This just in -- researchers have discovered that people in power are more apt to grab the goodies for themselves. The experiment cited actually used chocolate chip cookies . . . but I'd guess you can think of lots more examples on your own.

Click on the title of this post for the article in The New York Times.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Apocalypse Then

Fuller president Richard Mouw reviews Kenneth Newport's The Branch Davidians of Waco: The History and Beliefs of an Apocalyptic Sect in this month's issue of Books & Culture.

For those of you who don't remember -- the Branch Davidians were an Adventist offshoot that tangled with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) back in 1993. When the smoke cleared, 85 members were dead, as well as four agents of the BATF . . . but even today, the movement continues.

To be sure, the Branch Davidians were not Adventists -- but as Richard Mouw points out:

One matter that impressed me particularly as an evangelical reading Newport is his insistence that the tragic errors in David Koresh's understanding of the Bible do in fact have a history, a history that can in turn be traced to a perspective that was birthed by Ellen White, whose denomination has by now rightly earned considerable respect in evangelical circles and beyond. When the Waco tragedy was unfolding, the Seventh-day Adventist community engaged in a major public relations campaign to distance themselves from the Branch Davidians. I find no fault in that effort—having done my own share of public denying that this or that person who once studied at the seminary that I lead does in fact represent our theological position! The distancing was especially important in the Waco case, since that situation was a highly visible example of theology gone awry, and it was necessary for the general public to be advised that the Branch Davidians had long departed from the mainstream of Adventist thought.

But the flames at Waco no longer burn, and the smoke has cleared. Now is a good time for Adventist theologians to acknowledge at least some responsibility on the part of their tradition for the developments chronicled by Newport, since those developments do in fact draw on important elements in early Adventism. Many of us in the Dutch Reformed communities expended considerable energy insisting during apartheid days that South African racism was not a necessary consequence of our theological convictions. But some of us also did a good deal of soul-searching during that time, checking out the ways in which those racist themes did make connections —legitimately or illegitimately—to motifs that are indigenous to Reformed theology. That theological self-examination was a healthy exercise, and I recommend a similar project to my Adventist friends.

Click on the title of this post for the article.