Of all the things taught to us not just in our Beeson year, but way, way back in seminary, for most of us preachers the art of long-term sermon planning has never been addressed. I suspect that the cause for this was either the homiletics profs were of an age where they used the lectionary exclusively, or because they worked largely alone (just handing off the subject of the week to the music director so that hymns and a choir anthem could be selected), and as a result the concept of planning these things in terms of working with a worship team was out of their realm of expertise.
Fortunately, I had five years of experience doing this, well and poorly, in Goshen. I even went into the "wayback machine" and gave The Clouse a call just so I could remember how in the world we put together 4 to 6 week series that weren't overly repetitive, and were hopefully thought-provoking and engaging. It was good to put my head with his again, as together back in the day, we came up with some really good sermon series ("The Six Greatest Things Jesus Ever Said") and some real dogs ("Real Good Sex" - a series we did years before Mark Beeson at Granger was profiled on all the major news networks for doing an almost identical series... too bad our series blew chunks)
Anyhow, after a lot of reading, and another long morning with our worship team, here is where I expect we'll be heading in the course of the next year.
Jesus In The Suburbs: This series is inspired by the book, "Death by Suburb: How To Keep The Suburbs From Killing Your Soul" by David Goetz. It came out of a struggle I had late last fall and early this past winter about where to live when we returned to Lima from Wilmore. The obvious answer to this question, as the senior pastor of the Shawnee UMC was to live in Shawnee (duh), but I didn't arrive at that answer easily. Aimee and I (mostly I) toyed, seriously, with the idea of living in the city simply because sometimes that which you try to avoid by living in the burbs (crime and such) can often end up costing you something else. Like it or not, for example, the experience of attending Lima Senior, in my humble opinion, was in many ways better preparation for the "real world" than attending one of these suburban high schools, where kids attending tend to be from families who are more affluent, and communities more homogeneous.
And then it hit me.... did I think Jesus was more alive in the problems of the city, than the relative calm of the suburbs?
That was an important question, because it went right to the heart of some of biases I've always carried toward suburban Christianity, and the kind of "class warfare model" that's always shaped my understanding of the Gospel (which was also a reaction to the over-spiritualized interpretation my more fundamentalists brothers and sisters had of Jesus' understanding of what it meant to enter the "Kingdom of Heaven"). Besides, some of the best Christians I ever met and did ministry lived in the suburbs, or suburban-esque conditions.
So what was my problem? Middle class guilt? All those liberation theologians I've read over the years? A fear that as a guy who always wanted to "stick it to the man", that now, I have become "the man"?
I wasn't sure, but I had to find out. This series, then, is the product of some personal reflection on what shapes us in the suburbs, and some study regarding where Jesus shows up in the midst of our lives, inviting us to step out in faith to follow him.
A Letter From Prison: One of my favorite preachers is Bruxy Cavey, the teaching pastor for The Meeting House in Toronto, Canada. TMC was advertising on its website that this was going to be the title of Cavey's next sermon series, which is basically a study of the book of Philippians, which Paul wrote while he was in prison. I've never been all that strong a preacher when it comes to Paul. His teaching has always been difficult for me to get inside of because he dances this dance somewhere between the highly structured Jewish Christians (high church) and the more spirit-led Gentile Christians (low church), which makes it appear that he often is speaking out of both sides of his mouth. For example, on one hand he says that in Christ there is no male and female (implying a certain equality that exists between the genders) but he also in another letter basically tells women in a church to keep their heads covered and keep quiet, which implies some definitely inequality. These kinds of things always frustrated me, so I'd usually use Paul as the proof text - and rarely the source text - for a point I wanted to make
However, since I spent so much time with Paul in the books of Timothy for my dissertation in the last year, I feel like I have a better grasp on where Paul was coming from. Thus, inspired with a title (but no specifics), I decided to borrow Bruxy's idea, and come up with a series of my own. A series, I think, asks the question, what is the relationship of blessing and suffering to Christianity. Given the plethora of preachers now sporting "bling" and preaching a Gospel that basically tells people that Jesus wants us to have it all, particularly in a material sense, I wondered what Paul might have to say about this, locked away in prison, uncertain whether or not he'd ever be free again. As a side note, I'll not take a look at Bruxy's series until we're done with ours (late this year), just to see how brilliant he is, and what I missed.
Heroes: One of the things that has kind of come into vogue the past decade in terms of series planning, is the use of something in pop culture as a metaphor/symbol to represent a concept to be explored by a preacher. For example, I don't know how many churches have riffed off the idea of "Desperate Housewives" as a metaphor for bad relationships/suburban living but they have to be in the hundreds. We, at First UMC, weren't above doing this, having used the "Extreme Makeover" kind of home improvement show as a metaphor to talk about improvement spiritually and "The Simpsons" (an inspired sermon series about 30 people saw as "The Peak" faded in it's second summer, the victim of a time change and the exhaustion of having written over 150 sermons in 18 months) as a metaphor for family life.
One of the more interesting shows with a growing following right now is Heroes. It's premise is that ordinary people are given extraordinary powers to fight evil in the world. I gotta admit that The Clouse was the one who came up with this idea, because for the past year I lived without cable or an antenna, so I never watched the show. But the idea that ordinary people could change the world was intriguing (and something I say all the time), so I began thinking, in a Christian sense, what powers are we given by the Creator to change lives and change the world. And then, this verse hit me:
The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, hope, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control.
Or, in other words, when we allow the Spirit of the Lord to work in our lives, the evidence that the Spirit is doing his thing is that we become more loving, hopeful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, gentle, and more in control of our own impulses and reactions. So the obvious question is, how in the world does this work? Well, my premise is that the Spirit really embodies all of these things, and by exposing ourselves to them on a regular basis, we become more like our influence. This is a product of some scriptural study, but also twenty-some years of working with musicians, whose tastes are largely the product of that which they've heard. Hence the phrase uttered by countless musicians, "You can't escape your influences". Since Steven Covey is right in the sense that you can't decide your way out of a habit you behaved yourself into (I quote I saw on Nolan Donald's Facebook page), the role of influences in a life, and on a world, can't be understated. Thus, we'll be looking at how these "fruits" change a life, and do change the world in very practical kinds of ways.
That's as far as I've gotten. More as it develops.