Preaching and Worship

I love lemons. 

They are, by far, one of my favorite fruits. 

I enjoy lemons in my water, I enjoy eating them just as they are, but I most enjoy them in the vast array of pies, tarts, cookies, and cakes Melissa takes the time to bake.

In order for me to enjoy lemons, in any form, dozens of things must happen before the taste will ever hit my lips. 

I won’t list all of those things (because I don’t know them), but I will list out a handful that are helpful for our analogy of cultivating/curating.

  1. A seed must be planted.
  2. A tree must grow in soil that is conditioned and nurtured to encourage its growth.
  3. Bugs, insects, and a variety of other air-born pestilence must be vigilantly guarded against.
  4. A bloom must birth.
  5. A fruit must grow from the bloom.
  6. The fruit needs to ripen on the tree.
  7. Eventually, the fruit – when ready – is then picked.

At some point, I finally get to sink my teeth into some form of dinner, drink, or desert that has been made better because a lemon has been used!

In order for any of this to take place, however, the soil in which the lemon is first planted must be healthy soil that’s been nurtured, tended, literally arranged and organized in order for a fruit or plant to grow from it!

If cultivating – tending the soil (of the soul) – is the primary mission of a pastor/church, then being sure the soil is healthy, well cared for, rotated, organized, and arranged for growth is what I call the process of curating.

In some ways, all of efforts to cultivate will fail if we don’t first spend time curating the soil in which cultivation takes place!

We have, of course, heard the term, to curate, in other settings many times before.

A Curator, for example, is the title given to someone who organizes and oversees art and artifacts in a museum.  A curator who does his/her job with excellence and care, will engage in a variety of activities.  Chief among them, however, are:

  1. Keeper of Cultural Heritage.
  2. Selects themes and designs for exhibits.
  3. Manages and oversees arrangement of themes in a way that engages and illumines life.

As I said, there are many more components of the job.  I’d like to suggest, however, that ultimately a thoughtful curator is going to present and display the heritage over which he/she has charge in a way that offers a liturgical experience that will do more than illustrate a time in history but draw one into that time in history in such a way that one is changed by the experience itself.

If you’ve ever been to a museum or art show, then you know what I am talking about.  It’s not just that some items are on display. Rather, it’s that certain items – selected with great care – are on display in a certain way – chosen with intention – in the hope of offering a certain experience – enjoyment, appreciation, feeling a part of the era represented, desire, etc.

In a congregational setting, the pastor’s role as Curator is very similar. 

Ours is to keep the cultural heritage as received through the Scriptures, Experience, History, Reason, and select the themes (storyline) of our this heritage and arrange and organize spiritual truth within the context of the local church and community we serve.  All in the hopes that our church member will come away with a deeply spiritual, liturgical, worship experience of the Heavenly Father in which the minor narratives of our life have been re-written within the metanarrative of His love!

When viewed through this lens, the teaching and preaching role of the pastor takes on the multi-dimensional emphasis of curating spiritual truth in a way that cultivates the believer’s soul so that fruit will bloom – at times burst forth – and be shared with a world that’s hungry for the goodness found within!

I will write, in depth, on how viewing ourselves as a Curators of Spiritual Truth over proclaimer, prophet, teacher, etc., is essential to any ministry that hopes or aspires to be grounded in the life-changing power of the Gospel.

Over the last decade, numerous books and articles have been written encouraging the pastor to reframe how he/she views his/her ministry regarding the Sunday morning worship experience.

Most of the work I’ve gravitated toward suggests that there are two primary goals or points of emphasis in the local worship gathering:

  1. The Formational emphasis (popularized by the excellent writing of James K.A. Smith) of worship.
  2. The Expressive emphasis of worship.

Mark Pierson, in his thoughtful book, The Art of Curating Worship, notes,

“I’m beginning to understand worship and worship preparation much more as an art form than an organizational task. To see myself as a producer/ preparer of worship for myself and others, as a worship curator-someone who takes the pieces provided and puts them in a particular setting and makes a particular arrangement of them, considering juxtaposition, style, light, shade, etc. A maker of context rather than a presenter of content. A provider of a frame inside of which the elements are arranged and rearranged to convey a particular message to the worshiper.”

I’ve said before that I believe we are in the midst of a cataclysmic shift regarding worship and where we are heading in our worship setting.  And, while I don’t pretend to know the future, I do believe that the worship experience of tomorrow will be something along the lines of what I call liturgi-costal

That’s a rich blend of our liturgical heritage and our Pentecostal heritage.

Whether I am right or wrong isn’t important.  What does matter, though, is the how and why we go about worship within the local context.  I will continue to circle back around and flesh out the intricacies of what I am proposing, but it will revolve around a few key things we must do as Curators of Spiritual Truth!

  1. Preserve the sacred truth of Scripture as our magnetic north when it comes to worship, discipleship and soul-care.
  2. Arrange and organize and communicate the great spiritual truths of the Gospel (Genesis to Revelation).
  3. Nurture an environment that encourages a robust combination of formation/experience on a weekly basis.
  4. Offer an experience for the church to participate in a worship environment that creates space for the mutual sharing of the life of Christ who is vitally alive within and among His people.

Preach What Pours Forth!

I have the privilege of preaching every Sunday.  Yes.  It is a privilege!  After all, I get to present ideas on a wide range of topics lifted from the most popular book in the history of humankind.

That book, of course, is the Bible.

Two years ago, I was encouraged by a mentor to try preaching one Sunday without notes.  I still remember shuttering when he recommended it.

Just thinking about it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up in terror.

Oddly enough, before I made this decision, I was never one who carried many notes with me into any pulpit.

In fact, I was taught how to preach by Haddon Robinson.

Dr. Robinson spent his life teaching men and women how to preach one “Big Idea.”  He also demanded that we do so without notes.

Preach What Pours Forth

Yet, this was different.

You see, I learned to internalize the message and then follow point-by-point the message I had internalized.  I often used a skeletal outline dotted with a handful of thoughts I deemed crucial and important.

More times than not, I’d write the entire sermon, or significant portions of it, and then spend hours practicing before the big day.

The pressure to discover and use the most precise wording possible was great!

One day a friend gently suggested, “Biz, you don’t need notes.  Just leave them behind and preach what pours forth.”

So, I tried it.

That was two years ago.

I haven’t brought a single note with me into the pulpit since that day.

I may use notes again one of these days.  But for now, I go forth with my Bible in hand and preach what pours forth.

This decision was personally disruptive and congregationally renewing in a multiple of ways.

I am going to give you a few examples of how this was (and is) disruptive and the ways in which it’s bringing renewal.

Then, I am going to encourage you: “preach what pours forth!”

The Disruptive Renewal of Preaching Without Notes

First, it disrupted my subtle self-reliance.   

I recognized, early on, that I had become reliant on the work I did during the week.  Such reliance is NEVER bad.  In my case, however, it stymied me on Sundays, at times.  I spent far too many Saturdays stewing over the Sunday morning sermon because I didn’t have the Big-idea fully developed.  This stewing made me irritable and testy with my family and friends.  Melissa learned, early on, to walk softly on Saturday nights!

What is so sad about all that is the fact the worry, angst, and aggravation – even cloaked in study and preparation – never, ever, made a valuable contribution to Sunday morning!

Second, it led to a renewed reliance on God’s Spirit. 

This is closely tied to the previous one!  I work hard at my craft.  As such, I read all I can on the task of preaching and I spend hours of time studying and discussing the passage every week.  Yet, since I made this shift, I notice that I am far more at peace with a sense that the message isn’t there yet, so to speak. 

I am learning to trust that by the time I stand before the church, the message will already be there – waiting to greet us.

Such an experience frees me to be open to the Spirit’s moving in ways I never was before.  I often go in without a crisp Big-idea.  It’s rare that I have the main title.  And, though I know the passages for the week, I may not even know the order they will take.  Of course, it makes previously prepared notes impossible.

It bugs our sound and tech guy and causes those who select our songs to spend their own time with the Spirit (who knows more than I do anyhow) as they select the songs week by week.

Yes.  I am a worship leader’s worst nightmare!

Third, it changed my weekly preparation routine. 

Soon into this way of preaching, I became more aware of my own posture before the passages.  I’ve always said that we must allow the Bible to read and interpret us before we attempt to read and interpret the Bible.  Now, I was living that reality.  I began just ‘living’ with the passages for the first few days. 

Praying over them. 

Meditating on them.

Going back and forth with the Lord during the week.

After a day or two of this contemplative approach, I shift to the traditional Bible study methods I learned in seminary.  Where they were once the driving force of my weekly preparation, they are now an important but much smaller part of my preparation. 

Doing the hard work of exegesis is still something I do every week.  It’s also vitally important work that helps us check our own impressions with the wisdom of the ages.  Yet, it’s now supportive work, rather than the only work of the week.

It also changed the way in which I presented the sermon. 

Rather than a talk I felt compelled to give to listeners, I began to see it as a conversation I was having with them. 

It’s more than that, though.  When I deliver a message today, it’s a three-way conversation between the Lord, myself, and His people. 

The dynamic this creates is one of ‘withness’ between me and the congregation.

Ever since I made this adjustment, there has been a freedom and a sense of God’s presence alive within us in a more palpable way.  I remember a few months into the change how many Pillar family members commented on how powerful the services had become. 

No one could put a finger on it, but I felt the Lord was moving in new ways because of this one change!

And even though there are a few pitfalls to watch out for – which I will begin to address in my next post – I still encourage you to preach what pours forth!

The Process of How I Preach Every Week

The past couple of weeks I have been addressing the role of preaching within the local church.  Specifically considering the how and why of preaching more than the what of preaching.

This preaching-focus is connected to one of the primary roles (or Pillars) pastors must fulfill to be effective in ministry.  In the Transforming Pastoral Ministry and Leadership model I am offering, this is Pillar #4: Preaching, Teaching, and Worship.

I am also suggesting that we practice the art/craft of preaching much like a curator practice the art/craft of creating an environment within a museum.  A curator’s goal is to create an environment conducive to a transcendent experience.  If you’ve ever walked through a thoughtfully crafted art display, then you know what I am talking about.

When you stumble onto or into such an environment, you often find yourself lingering, caught up in the experience.  When you do leave, you feel like you’ve experienced a larger story.  A story the artist himself or herself has created.  You’ve been a part of the experience in a way that has left you wanting more.

In the same way, a preacher is a curator (or sorts) of spiritual truth.  One who creates an experience based on the artifacts of faith that stand beyond and transcend modern life.  This process considers the Scriptures, first and foremost, and then works out from that point.  Taking into account our vast history and experience, both ancient and modern.

In fact, using more biblical language, I think of a Pastor as a caretaker (or shepherd) of spiritual truth, more than a proclaimer, presenter, defender, prophet, teacher, etc.  This way of viewing my role – in essence, the how and why I go about preaching – creates a sensitivity to the overall environment and experience of worship week-in and week out.

Some may wonder, “is the role of Curator biblical?”  It’s a fair question.  One to which I’d answer a qualified yes.  While we may not find the precise word in Scripture, its cousins are all over the place.

Some of the most prevalent images, metaphors, and terms related to the role of pastoring are:

  1. Shepherd.  Perhaps the most prevalent of all images.  Abraham, David, Moses, Amos, Peter, Paul are all framed within the image – at some point – of being a shepherd.  A shepherd cultivates a flock and curates (arranges) the surrounding for their health.
  2. Farmer.  There are dozens of passages that accentuate the role of farming in Scripture and directly connect them to God’s people.
  3. Cultivator.  One who develops faith walk.  If you are going to cultivate (another primary Pillar), you must first curate!  If cultivating – tending the soil (of the soul) – is the primary mission of a pastor/church, then being sure the soil is healthy, well cared for, rotated, organized, and arranged for growth is what I call the process of curating.
  4. Guarding/Protector.  This image is everywhere.  It also hints at curation when you think of arranging and assembling truth in a way that offers protection, guidance, wisdom, and joy!

Well, you get the picture.  The themes of curating spill out all over the place when we contemplate and chew on the Scriptures. 

I love the term curator and the image it pictures.  I’ve reflected on the role of preaching and leading worship, however, I am becoming convinced that a better term is caretaker

The term caretaker captures the sense of one who shepherds, cultivates, farms and tends, arranges, guards, etc.  It’s as if all the biblical themes I’ve noted above are synthesized in this one word.  Further, it also captures the mundane realities of day-to-day custodial care that’s required of those of us committed to guiding the church within the corporate worship setting.

It’s time we, in the church, recapture these terms and re-envision or re-imagine ministry around them!

Unfortunately much of what passes for preaching in these days fails to capture the beauty of caretaking (primarily about an experience) because we’ve been lost in the sterile world of cognition (primarily about a lesson).

Cognition is not unimportant.  Indeed, thoughtfully studying the Scriptures and preparing a well-constructed message is vastly important.  It is, however, the only thing many of us consider to be important.  When that’s the case, we turn the church experience into a lecture hall where we wow them with our knowledge or a concert where we impress them with our presentation.

Worship, however, is more like a feast.   It’s more like a gathering at banquet whose bounty knows no end!

So, if you merely teach or preach a lesson, you run the risk of losing the transcendence of God’s presence.  This loss is, no doubt, an unintended consequence, but it’s a consequence none-the-less.

That’s why I am learning to approach my weekly preparation as a caretaker.  I try to begin by contemplating the symbols, rituals, stories, memorials, metaphors, and images the passages themselves present.

Then, with an eye toward Sunday morning, I bring these images to the Lord, asking Him what He wishes to share and how He wants them shared!  One of the ways I do this by asking Him to first arrange my life around the His word during the week.

At some point during the week, usually by Tuesday or Wednesday, I begin imagine myself standing in front of my congregation.  I see their faces.  I know the pains they carry and the hopes they hold dear.  As I meet with, speak to, email, them during the week, I am arranging Sunday in my head and heart.  I now – more than ever – aware of the fact that I am always caretaking!  I am caretaking in some small way every moment of the day and every day of the week.

Later on in the week – usually sometime between Thursday through Saturday – I tackle the cognitive work required to safeguard me from running amuck.  In other words, I spend considerable time in study.  I bring my contemplative discoveries, unearthed in the process of caretaking, with me. 

I hold these discoveries up to the scrutiny of scholars who have gone before me and studied far longer than me.  Whatever survives is what I consider arranging the worship experience around!

In my mind, this is a cognitively-contemplative approach that opens our heart to the presence of Christ, both within and among us.  It also, more importantly, keeps our hearts attuned to His presence as we preach.