Ministry for the Sake of Christ and the World

By Joe LaGuardia

I had a conversation with a Navy veteran yesterday who served as a flight-deck officer for nearly 25 years.  I thanked him for his service and was grateful that he had sacrificed his safety in order to protect our freedom.

He reminded me of the time I wanted to serve in the armed forces too.

I was a senior in high school when recruiters visited our classes and encouraged us to make a sacrifice for our country.  They visited on behalf of the Marines, the Army, the Navy, the Coast Guard.  My uncle had served in the Air Force, and I felt compelled to look into serving in that particular branch.  I am afraid of heights, but since I wore glasses I figured that they would not let me fly airplanes anyway.

When I came home to tell my father, he was not happy.  I did not understand why he was frustrated, and I began to explain all of the great things that can result from serving our country, and Uncle Joe served so why not?  Dad wanted me to go to college instead.

Although I trusted and followed my father’s advice, I still remember clearly–more clearly than ever when I spoke with that Navy vet yesterday–of the feelings I had in wanting to serve in something bigger than me, to make a sacrifice on behalf of a nation I loved and people that I longed to protect.

Since then, there were only two other times when I had that profound feeling of being called to something so profoundly inspiring.  One time was when I worked as a teacher assistant for an online college course through Ashford University.  It was a writing class, and many students I assisted were in the military or just released from the military.  Educating our troops and vets was my way of helping our nation yet again.

The second time came in college when I heard Christ calling me into the ministry.  I had gone through a litany of career options, praying for the right job that would allow me to serve others while supporting a family.  When it came down to either vocational ministry or practicing law, I met with my New Testament professor, and he gave me the lecture most of us ministry students receive.  Its the advice from the old Buechner adage that says that your calling is found where your deepest passion intersects with the world’s deepest needs.  I plunged headlong into ministry.  My father was happy.

Although I love church and ministry–I know I’m called to this because I cant’ do anything else–I often forget why I got into this business in the first place.  Yes, the Holy Spirit swayed my heart and Christ compelled me to serve His church as a full-time minister.  But there was also that profound feeling of serving others, the very same feelings I had when I spoke with those Air Force recruiters in the halls of Stoneman Douglas High School.

I think that when we ministers forget the source of our inspiration and the emotional reasons why we responded to God’s call–logic aside!–we forget the joy and passion that we are to bring to our vocation in church.

And I wonder if one of the reasons why churches plateau or die is partly because of us: We somehow lose that feeling of joining God at work for the sake of the world, and we fail to inspire others as our own passion dies a slow death under the weight of sermon preparation, balancing a congregation’s expectations with being true to yourself, and doing the busy administrative work that churches require.

I figure that if you do not have a love for every aspect of church and forget to rely on Christ’s love to fill you–whether visiting someone in the hospital or making a copy of your time sheet for your church administrator–then you might as well close shop and go home.

I enjoyed my conversation with that old veteran yesterday, and together we enjoyed a good meal as we celebrated a newlywed couple whose wedding I had just performed.  More significantly, I enjoyed what the conversation reminded me of: That we who call Christ Lord are to give of ourselves, and that there is no higher calling than to serve Jesus…To give one’s life for the sake of others, for there is no greater honor and privilege.

Proclaiming Truth in a Post-Truth World

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By Matt Sapp

2016 wasn’t a great year for truth, and the first days of 2017 don’t appear to have offered any improvement. When Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” in 2005 everyone laughed. Few are laughing now.

Colbert used the word to mean something we understand to be true because it “feels” right or because our gut tells us it ought to be true.  Truthiness means that facts are secondary to emotion and that wishful thinking somehow has the power to bend the truth.

The idea behind truthiness is closely related to confirmation bias, the idea that we are more likely to accept ideas or opinions as true if they tend to reinforce what we already believe.

During the 2016 presidential election we discovered an electorate primed for confirmation bias and truthiness. And our presidential candidates quickly proved ready to take advantage of the new reality by intentionally seeking to obscure the truth by muddying the waters about the basic standards of truth and by constantly calling into question what we previously accepted as reliable sources of truth — in the media, the scientific community, and the government.

Truthiness and confirmation bias are not, of course, only political phenomena.  Religious leaders and constituencies fall prey to the same fallacies.  In fact, there are few, if any, areas of our lives where basic standards of truth haven’t begun to erode.  That’s why we find ourselves liking and re-posting things on Facebook that turn out not to be true—whether it relates to football teams or to political candidates.

All of this leads many to conclude that we are living in a “post-truth” America.  In fact, “post-truth” was named the 2016 word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries.  In a post-truth world we seek out and lend credence to only those sources of information that tend to confirm our biases, and we begin to reject the idea that there are any unbiased, objective sources of truth.

When information bubbles and echo chambers become so exclusionary and loud, when confirmation bias and wanting to “feel” right become more important than facts, and when we become so factionalized and entrenched in our ideological ghettos, that winning an argument or an election—that power and victory—become more important than truth, then we live firmly in a post-truth society.

To the extent that what I’ve just described is happening, we are in real trouble. And a post-truth society presents a distinct challenge to Christians because we believe that Christ is the truth (John 14:6).

So how exactly does a post-truth world present a challenge to the gospel?

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matt 5:44)—those are basic Christian truths. But in a post-truth world people sit in the pews and wonder if those truths “feel” right. Do they line up with what I heard on the radio or TV last week?  Do they tend to confirm my biases?  Because, if not, in a post-truth world, we are being conditioned to hold those ideas as suspect.

So we start to interpret the truth into something more akin to truthiness.  We think, “In some situations loving your enemies means killing them and praying for those who persecute you means praying for God to destroy them.”

“Doesn’t that feel more right,” we think, “Let’s make that the truth.”

The last shall be first.  You can’t serve God and money.  Blessed are the peacemakers.

“Nice try preacher,” we think, “but that doesn’t feel right.  Self-promotion feels better. My gut instinct tells me I can serve two masters. Bomb the hell out of ‘em. Sometimes peace is made at the end of a sword.”

Those ideas “feel” great, and in today’s world we’re learning that if it feels right, it’s true.  If it doesn’t feel right, it isn’t.

In this way the Sermon on the Mount isn’t outright rejected.  We just question it around the edges and reinterpret it until it takes on the form of truthiness, until it becomes something that “feels” right in our gut—and until it becomes something less than true.

So how do we preach truth in a post-truth world?

First, we should preach the truth calmly and persistently, prayerfully and deliberately, and intentionally, so that we guard ourselves against a drift toward truthiness.

Second, we shouldn’t preach the truth only reactively—the truth must be more than just a response to every “post-truth” flare up.

Instead, with courage and dignity and diligence we should preach proactively that humility is a virtue and meekness a strength, that looking out for the little guy and caring for the downtrodden are their own rewards. That all of God’s children are equal in the eyes of God.

In a post-truth world we should confidently proclaim that there is such a thing as truth, that it has a unique and unrivaled power, and that it wins in the end.

No amount of post-truth yelling or anger or violence or money or intimidation or religious chest-thumping or political browbeating can keep truth down.  The truth will come out. It will come to light.

Truth is like yeast in the dough or the faith of a mustard seed—and, like Shakespeare’s Hermia, though it be but little, it is fierce!  So truth doesn’t need us to defend it, but it does need us to let it out into the world.  It does need to be insistently and persistently proclaimed.

The truth doesn’t have to “feel” right.  It is right.  It doesn’t have to shout to win an argument. And, as hard as it may be for us to understand, it doesn’t have to win every day, every battle, every election or even every decade. Our faith teaches us that it’s already won the war.

There’s another thing truth has done. It has set us free (John 8:32)—free to be right, even if it doesn’t always “feel” right.

Ending a Sermon on Time

stop-sign-2By Joe LaGuardia

Several weeks ago, I wrote that it takes nothing short of a miracle for a pastor to write a sermon every week.

It is true that sermons are the stuff of miracles, and I stand by my premise.  Yet, for far too many sermons, it seems that the miracle runs its course before the sermon ends.

Concluding a sermon is difficult, and (as many sermons out there attest) I’m not the only one who has a hard time with this.  I pity the congregation whose pastor does not know how to finish a sermon well.

“You should give as much thought to choosing your last sentence as you did to your first,” William Zinsser noted in On Writing Well, but far too many pastors preach for far too long, some exceeding 40 minutes of sermonizing.

For the late Fred Craddock, one of the masters at sermon conclusions, twenty minutes was good enough.  Without a manuscript to hold him down, he ended his sermons when the time seemed right, even if it meant leaving a few questions unanswered.

“I am not sure even Craddock knows when he is going to end his sermon,” Barbara Brown Taylor once noted, “but nine times out of ten it takes my breath away.”

Now, don’t let me fool you. Just because I’m writing this article doesn’t mean I know something about it myself.

One time when I was preaching, someone’s cellphone alarm went off.  I asked if there was a ringing in the room.  Someone affirmed that there was indeed a ring.

Another parishioner chimed in and said, “It means your time is up.”  We shared a laugh that day, but that parishioner was right.  It was time to get to the point.

Frankly, there is no right way to end a sermon, although theories exist.  Homiletician Eugene Lowery believes that a conclusion to every sermon should raise the heart heavenward and inspire the church to see Christ anew.

His sermons usually consist of three movements: The beginning plunges his audience into a conflict.  The middle digs deep into the biblical text and discovers how God uses reversal and redemption (what he calls the “narrative loop”) to save us from said conflict.  The conclusion lifts us up out of our human condition and sets us on the path of the Risen Christ.

Other preachers reserve life applications for the end.  Andy Stanley feels, for instance, that sermons should help people see why change is needed in the world.

“You close,” he wrote of preaching, “with several statements about what could happen in your community, you church, or the world if everybody embraced that particular truth.”

Other preachers feel that a proper conclusion consists of a summary of things already stated.  Unfortunately, many pastors take so much time on the summary that a great 25-minute sermon turns into a dismal 45-minute sermon.

Another observation from Zinsser rings true:  “A series of conclusions which never conclude . . . is ultimately a failure.”

Lastly, there are preachers who believe that the conclusion should have the congregation wanting more, like a thriller with a cliffhanger.

“The conclusion of a sermon should move like a river, growing in volume and power,” John Broadus noted in On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, “It should not be like a stream that loses itself in a marsh.”

Preachers who exert power in their conclusions rely on emotion and inspiration, usually bringing their audience to its feet and raising both voice and hands to inspire people to take action.  Repetition, rhythm, singing, chanting, and (in some traditions) hooping are tools in this preacher’s tool box.

As for me, I am honest with parishioners.  I let them know I can’t hit a home run every Sunday, but at least I will get them out of church on time.  I may not always inspire, but I will respect them.

A sermon that ends well communicates as much.