Christ-Centered Ministry

Sometimes I receive responses from pastors to the question I like to ask them about the most important thing they learned in ministry. This answer is from a youth pastor we had back when my wife and I were kids. He’s still pastoring youth and had a great response. I publish it with his permission.

I have a hand-written statement placed prominently on my desk.  It reads, “If teenagers love me and they don’t love God, then I have been promoting the wrong person.”  I wrote this statement while on my knees asking God about the ministry that I have.

Conventional thinking goes something like this:  If I can get a teen to like me, respect me, to draw close to me, then I can show him the Christian life.  The teens love for me will eventually transfer to a love for the Lord through my testimony.

There is something very satisfying to the flesh with this theory.  It is pleasing to be respected, followed, loved.  It is flattering to be imitated.  Teens do stay out of trouble, oftentimes, because of the influence that the Youth Pastor has in their life.   However, the problem comes the year after they graduate.  I am no longer there to keep them straight.   The time they spend with me is greatly limited.  My influence diminishes and their true heart is revealed.   I was trying to get them to follow me, and that is exactly what they did.

On the other hand,  if I spend my time, not working at getting the teens to like me, but pointing them at all times to Christ and His sufficiency, then lasting progress can be made.  If a teen loves Christ and I love Christ, we will automatically love each other and be drawn together.  When the young person graduates,  he doesn’t need me to keep him straight.  He goes on with his True Love.

This may seem like an obvious truth, but under the searching microscope of reality, most of what is done in the youth ministry is a promotion of self, not Christ.

Scott VH., Runnels, IA

Book Review: Pure Scum

I’m a little apprehensive about this book review. I received this book after making a request for a review copy from IVP almost two years ago. (Full disclosure: “review copy” means it was free!) That’s too long and this review is too little too late but I feel I owe it a post. Parts of Pure Scum resonate deeply with me because some of my story is similar to the author’s story. But also, it feels weird to write a review of a book about a church in my town that I have heard about but never been to although I know some people who go there. In fact, I met some Scum folks briefly at a graduation party this weekend. Perhaps sometime soon this needs to be remedied.

836291: Pure Scum: The Left-Out, the Right-Brained, and the Grace of God

Pure Scum: The Left-Out, the Right-Brained, and the Grace of God

Who is Mike Sares?

Mike Sares pastors the most interesting church in Denver. Don’t believe me? Try pastoring a church named Scum of the Earth. Bravery embodied. In Pure Scum: The Left-Out, the Right-Brained and the Grace of God, Sares admits the name wasn’t his first choice. “Perhaps I was afraid of it,” he writes. “Maybe I was too insecure to lead a church with a name like that.” But as the reader thumbs the pages it becomes clear the name is perfect for the ministry, a blend of shock and awesome grace.

Sares took the scenic route to ministry through jobs in advertising, sales, a steel mill and high school English as a teacher. He has attended denominations as divergent as Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and PCUSA but is ordained in The Alliance for Renewal Churches. He recounts his experience leading to his ministry at Scum as an encouraging story for anyone stuck in that place between calling and fruition.

What is Pure Scum about?

Pure Scum is written in an easy style and is part story of his Sares’ life, part philosophy of his ministry, and part devotional.

Early on Sares asks “Could it be that vision, passion and suffering are closely related?” His journey begs the question. The answer emerges throughout the book as the reader senses how deeply he cares for those to whom he is called to minister and how appropriately his own journey prepared him to ministry to them.

Sares tells of his conversion during high school and his long trek to ministry. He knew he was called early in his Christian life and was involved in leadership but not in a full-time position. He recounts the years between a word from God that confirmed he would have a ministry and his actually entering seminary with frustration. Believing God has called you but being unable to enter that calling is a special form of suffering. Like torture but less humane.

During those long years, God was quiet but not silent. Sares heard form God in one of those inside-your-head-but-not-you  moments that a band would someday come from his ministry. Eventually, this turned out to be the band we know as Five Iron Frenzy. The Bible study they started would evolve into Scum of the Earth.

The picture of Sares’ philosophy of ministry comes together in the stories he shares about his people. Gothic Sean’s story is moving as Sares describes a Goth kid with a passion for sharing Christ with his community. The reader quickly will realize that the impact of a struggling human being like Sean can often be greater than that of one who hides their suffering. His struggles were very real and Sares recounts dozens of hospital trips and hangovers. But he also tells of sitting in a Goth bar while Sean dances and occasionally brings people over to introduce them. There Sares’ ministry reached a world some of us do not even realize exists. “Make no mistake,” he writes in his eulogy for Sean who died, frozen on the streets of Boulder, Colorado, “Sean was a missionary to Capitol Hill, and he said so.”

One musician friend of mine says that “some people sing about the light, while others sing about what they see because of the light.” – from Pure Scum

The story of Kate’s poem delivered on Christmas Eve is equally emotional and riveting. Imagine what would happen if someone wanted to read a poem containing the F-bomb in your church. On Christmas Eve. In most churches that conversation would die before it even started. At Scum, Sares not only has the conversation but decides to go ahead with the reading, all the while processing the pastoral calculus. “I had to decide whom I was going to offend – the young woman who was tentatively placing her foot into the door of the church for the first time in years, or mature, faithful Christians who might leave me and Scum of the Earth but never leave Jesus and his church.” The poem and congregational response is worth the price of the book.

As I read these and other stories I could not help but wonder who we are trying to minister to in our churches. Our churches, as if they belong to us. Are there people we do not even see because we are too busy trying to make ourselves happy? Are people wrestling with the Living God because of our ministry? Or are they lulled to sleep because we refuse to be challenging? Jesus calls all kinds of people to himself regardless – or perhaps because of – their struggles or lot in life. Am I comfortable with that? With them? Sares challenges me (and will you if you read this book) to be more concerned about bringing the Gospel to people who can be overlooked than my own success or profit.

Who should read Pure Scum?

Pure Scum is one of those books aimed at a large section of the population but not specifically targeted at anyone. Christians will be most interested in the book, of course. I know a few people who believe Christians are judgmental jerks who might be surprised by Sares and his ministry, too.

In the Christian camp, Pure Scum will challenge pastors to reevaluate their ministries and consider whether they are listening to the Spirit as they serve. The Spirit pops up throughout the book as Sares tells the stories of the Spirit moving him toward people and the Lord, always keeping his eye on the prize. The Lord may not be calling you to reach the same people as Sares but He is calling you to listen and be ready even when you think you know better. Lay people will be dared to open up themselves to others that perhaps have fallen off their radar, people who may look different but who are loved by God tenaciously.

Pure Scum is an encouraging read in the tradition of Acts that will bolster the faith of Christians everywhere.

9 Ways to Make Your Sermons More Memorable

The fact that people do not remember on Tuesday morning the sermon they heard 48 hours earlier is both a blessing and a curse of ministry. On the one hand, it’s hard to take that your message is simply one drop of the bombardment of input people receive in any given week. You expended considerable effort to craft a biblical message that is as interesting and valuable. You want people to remember it. On the other, even pastors are fallen human beings who fail, sometimes miserably even when preaching.

I once heard a seasoned pastor describe this as “laying a homelitical egg.” He said after those sermons where you just as soon let the floor open up and swallow you as greet anyone, you are very glad people will forget it all by Tuesday.

Nevertheless, you and I are called to speak God’s truth to people and to do our best at it each week. Part of our job is to consider how to communicate truth.

I should say one thing about what I am assuming about you. I assume that what you want more than anything when you prepare a sermon is to actually communicate the Gospel to people. I assume you care if people remember the truths you mined and meditated on all week.

This doesn’t mean it’s an ego trip. When I have had the opportunity to preach I am often thankful for the prayer I learned to pray from other pastors that goes something like this: “Lord, help them remember what was from you and forget what was from me. If it was valuable and leads them to you let them keep it and remember it. If it sends them in the wrong direction, may they forget every word.” I don’t care if anyone remembers me. I want them to remember what God says to them through me. If you feel differently, please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear it. (Note: I mean it. No snarkiness intended.)

The list below is 9 things to think about as you are preparing the presentation of the the material you’ve dug from Scripture.

Without further ado:

  • Preach about just one subject at a time – This advice might seem like first year seminary stuff but you’d be surprised how many pastors violate it. In their zeal to speak from the Biblical text they fail to find the central thought in the passage and carpet bomb the congregation with too many topics. It might be fine in a Sunday School lesson or a small group but in a sermon it just loses people. They look like they are taking notes on their iPhones but I promise, that’s not what’s happening. They are on Facebook while you are preaching. Or they are texting each other about where to eat after the sermon. Keep working with the text until you find the central point (the “big idea” as Hadden Robinson calls it in Biblical Preaching.) If you can’t find just one point then it’s time to break up the text.
  • Consider your audience – I once heard a pastor preach a sermon in which his main illustration was about feeding babies. Someone in the congregation had recently given birth. When I say recently, I mean really recently as in earlier that morning. So I get why he did it. But when I glanced around at the congregation I realized that he was preaching to a room full of people who had been walking with the Lord longer than he’d been alive. Octogenarians were everywhere. Most of these people hadn’t changed a diaper in decades. Did they get the point? Sure. Just like babies need nourishment so does their spiritual life. Check. Did he know his audience? I’m being charitable saying no. Either he didn’t know them or he didn’t care which is worse. Do you think anyone, including the pastor, remembers that sermon? I remembered the sermon because of this observation but it’s the only thing I remember about it.

Which tool is right for the job?

  • Tell more jokes – I know some pastors who discourage humor in the pulpit. They object that the task of preaching is serious business. It most certainly is. The task of preaching the Word of God is too serious not to use all the tools available to you. Don’t be trite or trivial but realize humor is a tool. Like a good craftsman, learn to use the tools available to you and always use the right one for the job. Sometimes humor can obscure a good point. Avoid it then. But other times, those glorious, miraculous times, it connects to the audience and they get it. You can almost see the light bulbs go on as the laughter spreads across the sanctuary. If you see this opportunity then, by all means, say something funny. For an example of a pastor who uses humor well listen to Mike Householder at Lutheran Church of Hope in West Des Moines, Iowa. First thing you’ll notice is that he is not funny all the time but when he is it is very effective.
  • Be brutally honest – Nothing is more memorable than the truth especially when someone says something  you know is true but have never heard said out loud before. One temptation in preaching (there are so many) is to sugar coat things or to attack them from the side hoping everyone knows what you are talking about. Those sermons probably don’t even make it to Tuesday. But think about a time when you heard a pastor call out a specific lack of faith and you realized he was talking about you. Do you still remember it? Of course you do.
  • Tell a good story – The most memorable sermon at our church in the past year was when our pastor, preached last Memorial Day. He told the story of Jacob DeShazer and Mitsuo Fuchida to speak about forgiveness and grace. Most people in the room had never heard the story of two men who fought against one another in the Pacific theater during WWII but no one who was there will forget their dramatic story of reconciliation through Christ. Sometimes when I am tempted to hold a grudge I remember that sermon and figure if WWII wasn’t enough to keep these men apart my issues probably aren’t either. See? Memorable truth.
  • Use one unifying image or illustration to make your point – This one I learned from personal experience. I had a nice illustration to end my sermon with about a tree and how fruit grows. It was great. A week after I preached the sermon I realized how much more effective the rest of the sermon would have been if instead of throwing the  illustration in at the end I used as a unifying theme of the message. Chalk this one up to experience learned the hard way. You ever learn anything that way?
  • Offer more detail – As you tell stories, paint a picture in people’s minds. The more vivid the picture the more likely someone is to remember it. Recently in a Sunday School I’m teaching with another guy, we covered the myths about the Nativity story and we did it by digging into the details of the story separating fact from fiction. Some folks were astonished to learn the Holy Family were probably not in some Motel 8’s barn but more likely in the stable area of a family member’s home. Their whole idea of Christmas was rocked. I guarantee they’ll never forget it. We ruined Christmas pageants for the rest of their lives. For a nice example of detailed preaching, see Jeff Gilmore’s series called In the Fullness of Time, from January 2008. Gilmore does a fantastic job of offering details that make the sermon come alive.
  • Package your points in threes – I hesitate to even bring this up. It’s so overdone. “Three points and a poem” is a tired cliche. But inside every cliche is a nugget of truth. Let me give you an example to explain why I believe this one. Once I heard a pastor preach a nineteen point sermon. (Yeah, 19!) I kept the notes just to remind myself never to inflict that on a congregation. Great points. Needed message. Way too long. By the end I was wishing he believed in “three points and a poem” and hoping the pot roast wasn’t burning. You know as well as I do that capturing the attention span of your audience is critical to helping your message be heard. The maximum attention span in adults is about 20 minutes and shrinking. Breaking your sermon up into smaller chunks (still observing the first point above!) will help keep people’s attention and if they are paying attention they just might remember that very important message you have for them. Alliteration is optional.
  • Be passionate about your subject – I heard Alistair Begg say something that stuck with me in one of his sermons on the radio about how he gets ready to preach. He offered what I think is an old preachers saying:
    • I think myself empty
    • I read myself full
    • I write myself clear
    • I pray myself hot

I love that last part. The question is worth asking yourself: Am I passionate about the subject I am preaching today? Has God convicted me of its relevance to me and the people placed in my care? If so, great! Preach on and with conviction! If not, is it worth preaching?

Did I miss something? Share it with me below. I’d love to hear it!