Archive for category Christian Civility

Comic and Preacher Pens How-To Book on Sermon Prep  

Susan Sparks reflects on humor that is joyful and therapeutic in her book, “Preaching Punchlines.”

She is not speaking of humor that is scornful, rude, hateful or judgmental, but humor that lifts us up and honors. She quickly banishes any thoughts that she is advocating delivering sermons that are theologically light.

Sparks, who is pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City, knew that her calling was to be a pastor at age 6.

Yet, her dreams were ridiculed and squelched by religious leaders in her native Southern Baptist upbringing, and so she delayed that dream until mid-career after becoming a successful attorney.

She delights in being a pastor, and this book stresses the hard work that delivering a sermon, speech or comedy routine requires. She is part of a standup comedy troupe that includes a rabbi and an imam.

The heart of the book is the fifth chapter, in which she demonstrates the humor of Jesus in example after example.

Sparks is enthusiastic about how Jesus uses ordinary circumstances to connect with his audience.

He uses every technique available: exaggeration, humor, voice, irony, timing, silence, parables and repetition to capture his listener’s attention.

Follow Jesus’ example, she urges. Use every means possible including humor. This is important because the audience will remember only 10% of what you say.

Providing step-by-step instructions on sermon preparation, she emphasizes always keeping your congregation in mind. What are members of your congregation interested in? What keeps them awake at night? What’s going on around you?

Observe people and listen to them, she advises. Always keep a notebook or recording device with you. Make a note about your observations. Develop a file system that will let you find illustrations that you have experienced, observed or read about. Talk about the hard stuff.

She stresses that congregations need more than they can Google. They need to be given real food by someone they trust.

“A sermon is bigger than us,” she writes. “In its purest form, a sermon should be a message inspired from a higher power given through you to a congregation. God is the power source. If we don’t feel the power, it’s not God.”

Learn to write like a comedian, Sparks says. Build your scenario. The punch line comes last. Wait a moment to let it sink in before you start talking again.

Boil your sermon down to your core message. Put that at the top of your page. Read your sermon out loud at least twice. This will help you weed out unnecessary words or extraneous material.

Narrow your sermon to what is direct and necessary for your one-line summary. Reserve the rest for another time.

Finally, she follows and recommends the practice of praying your sermon out loud.

One commandment Sparks gives is the one many ministers ignore, but its observance is essential: “Thou shalt not be exhausted by the Sabbath.” Rest and sleep are essential.

Sparks believes that being given an opportunity to preach before a community of faith is one of the highest honors one can receive. If one is to perform at her or his best, time apart, rest and reflection are mandatory.

So, she emphasizes that ministers must take a day off. Get away. At least stay away from the church once in a while. She and her husband take motorcycle trips.

Always remember why you are doing what you are doing, she says. Tap into the source. Always keep a copy of your sermons. Review them, taking note of common themes. What excites you? What do you preach about most often?

Her final commandment is my favorite, “Thou shalt have joyous communication.” This is true for comedians, motivational speakers and preachers. “No matter how we feel, we must radiate joyous communication into the rafters and far corners of the sanctuary.”

As I travel around and hear sermons from preachers in various denominations, this element most often is missing. Where is the joy of living the Christian life?

I already know my failures. If the joy is lacking in your speeches or sermons, Spark’s book will lift your spirits and help you rekindle your zest for preaching.

She reminds us that we are enough, and that God always has our back.

“Preaching Punchlines” contains ample references and numerous QR codes that allow you to scan even more. This book is pure gold for anyone who wishes to improve her or his sermons.

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Churches in America: too fragile to fight (at least with each other)

BILL LEONARD* | SEPTEMBER 3, 2019 – Baotistnewsglobal,com

In a recent essay in The Atlantic, Peter Wehner cites this comment by Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary:

“The Church is in one of its deepest moments of crisis – not because of some election result or not, but because of what has been exposed to be the poverty of the American Church in its capacity to be able to see and love and serve and engage in ways in which we simply fail to do. And that vocation is the vocation that must be recovered and must be made real in tangible action.”

Labberton’s insightful, poignant challenge might require a small caveat: The Church is indeed in crisis, largely because of multiple crises, few of which are momentary. We’re in it for the long haul. In America 2019, to confront one crisis or multiple crises, you must stand in line. It feels as if a new or expanding crisis in the country or the church occurs daily, sometimes by the hour.

Public crises alone are daunting enough, even on the briefest of lists: opioid addiction; gender and sexuality issues; racial and political divisions; immigration and the treatment of immigrants – documented and undocumented, sick or well, adult or child; healthcare or lack thereof; religious liberty or lack thereof; global warming with melting glaciers and flaming forests; species extinctions; sexual abuse inside and outside the church; increased suicides; and mass shootings, mass shootings, mass shootings.

“It feels as if a new or expanding crisis in the country or the church occurs daily, sometimes by the hour.”

As these and other public crises demand multiple responses from Christian communities, so do an increasing variety of ecclesiastically-specific crises that confront congregations across the theological spectrum. Here are but a few:

Denominational support systems are disconnecting, disengaging, even breaking apart.
Religio-political divisions create tensions throughout denominations and congregations.
The changing sociology of Sunday often means even “active” members attend worship services only intermittently.
Estimates vary widely, but some 4,000 to 10,000 churches close each year.
The “Nones,” those who claim no religious affiliation, remain an ever-expanding subgroup in American religious life. A recent study from Eastern Illinois University put Nones, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals in a statistical dead heat, each at around 23 percent of the population. A 2017 Christian Science Monitor report on a survey of more than 100,000 Americans noted that the number of white evangelical Protestants fell from about 23 percent of the population in 2006 to 17 percent in 2016 – and only 11 percent of white evangelicals are under age 30.
Many congregations now experience decreasing and/or aging membership; declining finances that impact staff salaries, programs and building maintenance; waning attendance, membership and baptisms; and escalating intra-church conflict, often directed at ministers.

Worse yet, with both documented and anecdotal evidence, new and enduring doctrinal-cultural-political debates continue to impact congregations, fomenting unrest if not outright schism. Headlines in recent months outline multiple crises:

“After Disagreements over LGBTQ Clergy, U.S. Methodists Move Closer to Split” (NPR)

“Hate Thy Neighbor: When American Evangelicals Fall Out” (The Economist)

“Battle Lines Form Over Social Justice: Is it Gospel or Heresy?” (RNS)

“Pastor’s Exit Exposes Culture Rifts in a Leading Liberal Church” (New York Times)

“Joshua Harris Kisses Christianity Goodbye” (Wall Street Journal)

“Only Half of Kids Raised Southern Baptist Stay Southern Baptist” (Christian Century)

“Amid Evangelical decline, growing split between young Christians and church elders” (Christian Science Monitor)

We all know that congregational conflicts are not unique in Christian history. Disputes arose the moment the Apostle Paul proposed welcoming Gentiles into the church. The Pauline epistles alone document congregational infighting among the fledgling Christian communities. Take the ever-factionalized Corinthian church, please! Paul rakes them over the gospel coals for arguing over food (“meat offered to idols,” 1 Corinthians 8:1-13); kowtowing to certain “super apostles” (2 Cor. 11: 1-15); and debating when, whether, with whom or never to have sex (“better to marry than to burn,” 1 Cor. 7:1-9).

(Those crises convince me that the Corinthian Church was essentially proto-Baptist.)

“Contemporary intra-church unrest and schism is particularly damaging since so many congregations are already weakened by the crises that surround them.”

Across the centuries, doctrinal disputes, sacramental differences or participation in “wars of religion” could get you exiled, burned, beheaded, hanged or drowned by Catholic and Protestant alike. Thank God, we’ve left that behind (mostly).

Historically, American congregational conflicts illustrate the adage that “churches multiply by dividing” amid multiple disputes and crises. Yet contemporary intra-church unrest and schism is particularly damaging since so many congregations are already weakened by the crises that surround them, making recovery at best lengthy if not altogether impossible. In fact, some congregations are now so weakened that schism will simply hasten their demise.

That reality ought to sober us all toward cooperation and reconciliation. In that vein, might we together:

Distinguish between genuine dissent and petty animosity?
Develop creative measures for nurturing healthy debate and the boundaries of disagreement before crises occur?
Enlist the services of trained mediators and conflict managers when necessary?
Resist airing disputes outside the Christian community, especially on social media?
Recognize the difficulties of recovery in the face of contemporary institutional and individual exhaustion?
Cultivate congregational unity around shared ministry that energizes beyond, alongside or despite differences?
Gravitate toward those congregations that best reflect our gospel commitments; then work to make them better, not tear them down?
These realities confront us with yet another “Bonhoeffer moment” in this country and the world, a time of decision when the best elements of Gospel and Church call us to remember and reaffirm who we are and what we are about as participants together in the Body of Christ. To our crisis-ridden times Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks yet, writing from prison in 1944, the year the Nazis took his life:

“The Church is the Church only when it exists for others…. The Church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men [and women] of every calling what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others. In particular, to take the field against the vices of hubris, power-worship, envy, and humbug, as roots of all evil. It will have to speak of moderation, purity, trust, constancy, patience, discipline, humility, contentment, and modesty. It must not underestimate the importance of human example” (Letters and Papers from Prison).

Crisis or not, that’s quite a calling, then and now.

*Bill Leonard lectured at the Hamrick Lectures at First Baptist Church of Charleston.

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“Religious Liberty” is being hijacked; Rev. Dr. Molly Marshall – BaptistNewsGlobal

It is much easier to sit in front of my computer screen and opine about government, politicians, policies and the challenge of living in a democratic municipality than it is to enter the political process as one voice among others. It is much easier to limit my engagement to spaces and contexts where most are in agreement. It’s easy to sit in our Sunday school classes and talk about our responsibilities in the public square. It’s much harder to actually move from theoretical advocacy to responsibly and faithfully inhabiting those places where decisions are made about the common good.

I recently had such an opportunity as the city in which I live was debating whether or not we need a nondiscrimination ordinance to protect LGBTQ persons in our community. I went to a public meeting as a private citizen, as a person of faith with clear convictions about justice and as a religious figure who serves as president of a seminary that resides in the area the city council oversees. I went as one voice among others (which is always helpful to those of us given to pontification).

Members of our community had been working on this for more than a year. It takes great patience and strategic thinking to make policy change. As one who came late to this movement, I grew in respect for those who have labored to garner support and sift what is at stake. They are serving the common good in ways that may surpass some of our faith communities that are more insular.

I was pleasantly surprised by the level of civility. No one clapped, hissed or booed. Persons listened attentively to those with whom they disagreed on the nature of human sexuality, religious freedom and public accommodation. And we stayed a very long time in order to give each one opportunity to present perspectives on the proposed ordinance. I found myself on the opposite side of some other clergy, especially Roman Catholics, which was painful since I care intensely about unity of the Body of Christ.

I felt it important to stress that persons of faith can find inclusive ways to express their own religious freedom. It requires empathy and attentiveness to those whose experience we may not understand. I spoke about the journey our school has been on, seeking to be nondiscriminatory in all our functions.

“We must work to preserve human dignity and religious liberty for all.”

For the past seven years, Central Baptist Theological Seminary has had a non-discriminatory policy that names gender identity and sexual orientation. Our board is far from a wild-eyed liberal group; rather they are sober, faithful people who believe in religious liberty, justice and compassion. They acknowledged that we know a lot more today about human sexuality than when the Scriptures were penned. We believed it was the right position for a school that prepares leaders for ministry.

Some in attendance at the city council meeting were stunned that “a Baptist can be open minded,” as one put it, after I articulated our institutional perspective. The popular (and rather monolithic) conception of who Baptists are is less than admirable.

I presented a few brief words of witness from the perspective of religious liberty, especially as the rhetoric of discrimination is heating up nationally, kindled by the Trump administration. Reportscontinue to surface that the president is asking the Supreme Court to legalize workplace discrimination against gay employees.

Religious liberty does not mean persons can do whatever they please. We live in community as citizens in a democracy that has both legal and social obligations. The free exercise of religion is within a larger commonwealth, which has implications for the religious liberty of others.

Thus, the limits of religious liberty have to do with whether or not its exercise causes harm to another. Precluding employment, housing or public accommodation is life-threatening and injures already vulnerable citizens. We are aware of the statistics of incidences of suicide attempts among LGBTQ youth and adults; additionally, violence against this community is rampant.

Congregations are free to do what they choose about including or excluding sexual minorities from membership, roles of leadership either ordained or lay, and whether to provide pastoral services (including weddings) to LGBTQ couples. The church or synagogue or temple can determine how it will exercise its religious liberty. It can exclude in a way a civil society cannot, yet many religious leaders are learning how to include and accord dignity to those formerly marginalized by faith communities.

As the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty has concluded: “A baker or florist’s religious beliefs do not provide a blanket exemption to state or local laws that protect customers against discrimination in the commercial marketplace. Granting an exemption could drastically undermine nondiscrimination laws which provide important protections for religious customers.” This balanced perspective offers a helpful approach to the thorny issues a community faces. Baptists and other communions caring about religious liberty can trust the BJC as a reliable guide on current legal challenges.

“The limits of religious liberty have to do with whether or not its exercise causes harm to another.”

We must work to preserve human dignity and religious liberty for all. This means that employment, housing and commercial services are equally available to all. It is the right thing to do; it is good for our community; and, yes, it is good for business. Across the nation, the law is trending toward equality. The church must not lag behind.

We must not be absent from the social landscape. Schools and churches are members of the larger community, and we are called to participate constructively as faithful interpreters of gospel values. Keeping silent is not helpful in our times when the principle of religious liberty, as set forth in the First Amendment, is being hijacked by religious leaders and others who give it a narrow sectarian meaning that argues for personal privilege and concomitant discrimination.

The proposed ordinance passed with a 5-2 vote. It was an act of compassion and justice for which I am grateful. I pray it will be but one of many grassroots-led actions for the common good in the days ahead.

Related commentary:

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Cultivate Kindness and Humility to Honor Jesus, Rev. Susan Sparks Says

by MARY LEE TALBOT on   – The Chautauqua Daily

With all of the people on our holiday gift list, there is one person missing,” said the Rev. Susan Sparks at the 9:15 a.m. Wednesday Ecumenical Service. “That name is the first six letters of Christmas — Christ.”

Sparks’ sermon title was “What Are You Going to Get the Baby Jesus for Christmas?” and her Scripture text was Micah 6:6-8. The Advent theme was love.

There was an 80-year-old woman in Sparks’ congregation who came to her with a terrible sin. The woman told Sparks she had been using “LOL” in cards, thinking it meant “lots of love.” She had just found it meant “laughing out loud.”

“I did not see what the problem was,” Sparks said. “Then she told me she had been putting it on condolence cards.”

This was the third sermon in her Advent series, representing the third Sunday in Advent.

“This is close to Christmas, and we begin to think about things like, ‘Are the cards out?’ ‘Is the tree up?’ ‘Have I bought all the gifts?’ ” Sparks said. 

She continued, “In a comedy club, the acts are scheduled tightly together so at the end of 9 minutes and 30 seconds, a red light goes on in the back of the club. It starts flashing at 9 minutes and 45 seconds, and they pull you off the stage at 10 minutes precisely. The third Sunday of Advent is like that — that light is flashing.”

She called it a time of intense consumerism and commercialism.

“It is ironic that the baby Jesus gets ignored on our holiday list because it is a celebration of his birth,” Sparks said. “What are we going to give? I noticed in the Bible, he got frankincense and myrrh, and I went online and found a lotion at Walgreens with frankincense and myrrh in it. I think we can do better for the baby Jesus than a lotion. He wants us to act from our hearts, to give of what we have at the moment.”

Sparks recalled preaching at a convention at Bally’s Las Vegas Hotel and Casino.

“Think of it, Baptists in Vegas,” she said. “When the offering came forward, there were poker chips in the plate.”

The best gift guide for baby Jesus is found in Micah 6:6-8.

“‘What should I give?’ the prophet asked; the answer came back pure and clear and simple,” Sparks said. “Say it with me — do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. These are the things Jesus loves more than lotion.”

Kindness is harder to act on than we think, she told the congregation.

“A consumer survey said that one of the top 10 stresses of the holiday season is ‘having to be nice,’ ” she said. “What would kindness look like? Like Diana Ross said, ‘Reach out and touch someone.’ ”

A Santa in a store learned sign language to be able to communicate with children from a school for the deaf. Speak to people, Sparks said, “like bus drivers, store clerks, waiters and waitresses and wait for an answer.”

Reach out to the lonely, drop by a senior care center and just visit someone for half an hour. Some people are even donating Alexas to nursing home residents.

“You can drop a card to someone who is lonely,” Sparks said. “It is a gift that could change someone’s life. It doesn’t take a lot to do kindness.”

Humility, she told the congregation, “is not thinking poorly of ourselves, but empowering ourselves for service.”

“Lao Tzu said that true power comes from lowering ourselves in service,” Sparks said. “He said that rivers and seas lead 100 streams because they are skillful at staying low. They lie in low land so the water willingly flows to them.”

Leaders and people in general, Sparks said, need to be more like a conductor who listens to everyone. John C. Maxwell in Leadershift: The 11 Essential Changes Every Leader Must Embrace, wrote that most leaders are stuck in the soloist mode, where everyone serves them.

Sparks recalled that Pat Summitt, the former head coach of the Lady Volunteers basketball team at the University of Tennessee, did not go into the locker room at half time and talk at her team. The team would get out a white board and talk about what went right, what went wrong and what needed to change.

“Once the team had talked it out, then Summitt would speak,” Sparks said.

Sparks and her husband, Toby, took a bucket trip on Thanksgiving — a train from Chicago to Los Angeles.

“It was as romantic and adventurous and fun as we thought it would be — on the first day,” she said. “By the third day, it was getting cramped.”

While her husband went out for coffee, she decided to fix her hair and put on some makeup.

He returned to their roomette, looked at her and said, “Why are you so angry?” Sparks looked in the mirror and saw what she had done.

“Never draw your eyebrows on a moving train,” she said.

She continued, “God forbid we should show vulnerability. People’s faces tell us a lot, and we need to listen.”

The third present for baby Jesus is to do justice, not just imagine justice, like a John Lennon song.

“Don’t sing about justice, don’t think about justice — do it now,” Sparks said. “The world is in pain, broken and burning. I think about the children and brothers of color taken by gun violence, the way people look at our Muslim brothers and sisters with suspicion, the hunger, poverty and homelessness all around us.”

One step taken by one person can move everything toward change. Rosa Parks said she was just trying to get home from work when she stayed in her bus seat.

Sparks said one Sunday, her deacon board gave everyone in the congregation a $5 bill.

“They could not use it on brunch, or go to a movie or buy a Powerball ticket,” she said. “They were to pay it forward, use it to lift someone up.”

One person bought wings for a homeless man sleeping on the sidewalk with a sign that said, “I’m hungry.” Another bought mittens for a family that was struggling. Another gave money to a street vendor who suffered a loss when fruit was stolen from his cart. An artist in a train station, a homeless man who needed an umbrella, a woman in Afghanistan who needed a micro loan to learn tailoring, all benefited from these gifts.

“It’s like blowing dandelion seeds into the wind,” Sparks said. “This is the power of kindness, humility and justice to change the world. It is the truth. As Margaret Mead said, ‘a few caring people can change the world.’ ”

Sparks closed her sermon by telling congregants to “reach within yourself.”

“Find what you have to give, cultivate kindness, humility and justice and put the baby Jesus first on your list,” she said. “As the Quaker missionary Stephen Grellet said, ‘I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it for I shall not pass this way again.’ And the people of God said, Amen.”

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