Topical or Expository?

I hear this question all the time, particularly when I talk to guests who visit our church. "Do you preach expository messages (passage-by-passage through books of the Bible) or topical messages?"

The answer is, "yes."

Here's my thinking on preaching: whatever the message is, it has to be straight from the Bible. We don't preach out of Newsweek or Time Magazine or our own opinions and crazy hairs. Beyond that, we've got some flexibility.

There are several benefits of going passage-by-passage through a book: It's much more difficult to take a passage out of context, much more difficult to avoid hard passages, and people gain confidence being able to put the pieces of Scripture together. They're less likely to say "my pastor says..." and more likely to say "the book of Romans says..." That's a win for any pastor whether he knows it or not.

There are some liabilities of expository messages: Who wants to go passage-by-passage through 2 Chronicles for 6 years? Also, it's much harder to address specific needs relevant to your congregation and culture if you don't happen to be preaching through a Text that specifically addresses those issues.

There are also several benefits of preaching topical messages: you are able to get a more comprehensive view of what the Bible says about a specific topic (ie. "marriage" or "God's attributes") You are able to explain the forest, not just the trees. The metanarrative of Scripture becomes more clear through topical messages done well. One of my pastor friends is fond of reminding me that Scripture never records Jesus preaching an expository sermon. That's probably a stretch (Luke 4:21 is a 8 word exposition of Isaiah 61), but he has a fairly good point: Jesus preached a lot of topical messages.

However, there are some liabilities there too. It's easy to force Scripture into your point. It's easy for people to remember your point but not the Scripture. And, it can lead people towards a mentality of worship in which they rely on the pastor to interpret the Scripture and tell them what to do. The Reformers fought pretty hard to ensure that wasn't necessary.

So, which do I preach? I preach both. I probably lean towards exposition because I feel like it fits my gift-mix and because I feel like more than people need to be told what to do, they need to learn how to figure out what to do from the Scriptures on their own. My method of preaching is an attempt to help people study the Bible for themselves, and that's more simple with exposition. But that's a personal preference based on my individual giftedness and strengths; not a conviction that everyone else needs to hold to.

There's room for a lot of styles, so long as all the styles are faithful to the Text.

Come and See?

Because of my compulsive problem with boxes I mentioned yesterday, I often have a hard time describing our church to other people.

We've got a lot in common with "missional" churches, but everyone talkin' 'bout missional ain't going there...

We've got a lot in common with traditional Bible Churches, though I don't use an overhead projector, don't wear a suit, and can't remember the last time I parsed a Greek word from the platform.

We've got a lot in common with non-denominational churches, though not the pew-jumping, snake-handling kind.

You get the picture.

This past week I stumbled on something that gets at a piece of who we are. It doesn't totally characterize us (it isn't a box), but I think it's fairly helpful. Someone asked me if we were an "attractional" church. Obviously, I shunned the box. But, I said this: "Rather than a Come and See church, we want to be a Go With Us church."

Our heart is that the very best ministry we do will never happen "in here." We want to do great ministry "in here," but that's not what is attractive about us. If you really want to see what's attractive about us as a church, go with us.

The Problem With Boxes

For several reasons I don't do very well with being categorized. Part of it is my generation; part of it is my desire to be an individual rather than a statistic; part of it is my uneasiness about the baggage that comes with categorizations. 

My experience is this: when people put themselves in a box, they normally do it because they identify with the majority of the people inside the box with them. They identify with the core of the box. 

When people outside the box look at the box, they only identify the people on the fringe. 

In that way, boxes are inherently unhelpful. If they are only helpful once you've established you agree, the box is no longer necessary.

For example, characterizing oneself as a "Calvinist" would only be helpful in conversations with other Calvinists. People outside the Calvinist box would generally assume that a "Calvinist" is a hateful fatalist who doesn't believe in evangelism - they would identify the "box" by the fringe. 

Characterizing oneself as a "Dispensationalist" would normally only be helpful to a person who is like-minded. Otherwise, you're in the same box as the wigs on TBN and the person who wrote the book "88 Reasons Why The Rapture Will Be in 1988" and the "89 Reasons..." sequel. 

Rather than jumping in a box, it is far easier to say, "Lots of people define those categories differently. Here is what I believe..." 

Boasting in Receiving

At McKinney Church we've been preaching through the book of Romans chunk-by-chunk for the last several weeks. This past week we finally made our way out of the "bad news" of Romans 1:1-3:20 and into the "good news" of the rest of the book, talking about how righteousness for God is different from righteousness from God.

Righteousness for God turns us into performers who hope our good performance will elicit God's applause. The only problem with that idea is that Romans 1-3:20 is true and, as it turns out, we're awful performers.

Righteousness from God turns us from performers to receivers, which is better because it's our only hope.

When you understand that right standing in the eyes of the Judge (righteousness) is a gift, it eliminates your need to perform and eliminates your room to brag. Whoever bragged about what a great gift-receiver they were?

You can't brag as the receiver, you can only boast in the Giver.

We don't have right standing before God because we were good, holy, righteous, moral, upright, or religious. We have righteousness because God gave us an extravagant gift that we receive freely by faith. We can't accept the credit; we can only accept the gift.

I'm Busy

From time to time we'll debrief an event or program as a staff. Attendance is very rarely a metric we pay an inordinate amount of attention to, but we do want to gauge the response to something we have done in order to evaluate the investment we have made and to make sure what we are doing is helpful.

Almost always, the comment is made, "Well, people are busy."

I understand that, but refuse to accept it.

People are busy, but people have always been busy. Today people are busy with little league games, social activities, work events and school events; a hundred years ago people were busy tending the farm so their family could eat dinner. Busyness is a true statement, but it is not a statement of the real issue.

"I'm busy" represents a value judgment, plain and simple.

We will make time to do the things we truly value. If we value eating, we arrange our busyness so we can hold a job and earn a paycheck. If we value rest, we arrange our busyness so we can go to bed at some point during the day. If we value the football game, we arrange our busyness so we can watch it. And so on...

If I am too busy for your event, it means I value something else more, plain and simple. That isn't always a problem, but sometimes it is. Sometimes "busyness" is a mask that hides our idolatry. Sometimes "busyness" is a symptom of a greater disease. And sometimes "busyness" is an excuse that allows us to politely say "your event isn't helpful to me but I don't want to hurt your feelings."

In your planning, don't allow "busyness" to be a trump card that keeps you from going deeper. "Busyness" should always drive you to ask the deeper questions: What do people value more? Why is that the case? Is that their problem or mine?

Commonplace Blog

I'm currently reading "Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation" by Steven Johnson. The topic is interesting to me, but even if it wasn't I would have bought the book after seeing the publisher's viral marketing campaign video on YouTube. That video is must-see. I'll write a review of the book another day.

Essentially, Johnson's thesis seems to be that good ideas are almost never the result of an "aha" moment, but the slow combination of many seemingly unrelated pieces of information and ideas that combine in the right environment to evolve into a good idea. In fact, much of Johnson's book uses the illustration of Darwin's theory of natural selection to show how Darwin's idea evolved in a way similar to the way he believed mankind had evolved.

Now obviously, I reject many of the implications Darwin came up with. Yet, the process he went through in reaching his theory is fascinating.

Johnson takes quite a bit of time to describe what Darwin called his "commonplace book." Commonplace books were like scrapbooks for ideas, quotes, recipes, and information that became popular in the 17th century. Great thinkers like John Locke, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Milton, and Mark Twain were all well-known keepers of Commonplace Books.

Commonplace Books became a place where thinkers would collect information that had virtually nothing in common. They would hand copy entire sections from books that they found interesting, recipes they might try, mathematical equations and virtually anything else they were thinking about. The Commonplace Book became a repository to store unrelated ideas and information  "just in case" the thinker needed the information in the future.

According to Johnson, these Commonplace Books provided the "Primordial Soup" that combined ideas and thoughts so that when the conditions were just right, unrelated ideas became related in what only appeared to be an "Aha" moment for thinkers.

It's a fascinating topic.

Ultimately, for me I guess, the purpose of this blog is to serve as my own version of a Commonplace Book. I don't do any of the things people say you should do in order to attract readers, mostly because I don't really care if anyone reads this blog or not. My post count binges and purges, I don't stick to a single topic, and I don't have a specific audience in mind. I'm just hoping to collect enough of my thoughts and ideas that some day I will say something really smart.

Until then, I hope you enjoy the hot, steamy bowl of primordial nothingness.

3 Cs

A few weeks ago a friend of mine passed along a tape (prehistoric MP3) of a talk he had heard many years ago by Jim Dethmer, a former pastor at Willow Creek Community Church who summarized his learnings in ministry for a group of pastors.

Primarily, the focus of this particular talk was a description of the local church existing as three things simultaneously: Cause, Community, and Corporation. According to Dethmer, these three circles exist together with some overlap but also with some independence.

As a Cause, the church is on mission like a soldier. The cause is the ultimate end of the organization and is worthy of any sacrifice.

As a Community, the church is like a family. Belonging, transparency, caring, and nurturing are the name of the community game.

As a Corporation, the church is an organization. Structures and systems that are effective and efficient are necessary to the church's survival.

Though there are some notable breakdowns in Dethmer's illustration and it certainly isn't comprehensive (these three traits could also be said to define a social organization that doesn't hold the Gospel as central), Dethmer's illustration is helpful, primarily in helping the leader discern which hat he is wearing at any given time.

The leader might put on his "corporate" hat as he attempts to motivate an employee toward better performance and then immediately switch to his "community" hat by inquiring about that employee's family. The wise leader will maintain a balance between all three circles. If he only wears the "cause" hat, the church will be cold spend much of its time chasing its tail. If he only wears the "corporation" hat, the church will get lost in a sea of metrics; nickles and noses will eclipse the cause. If the leader only wears the "community" hat, the church will be the most loving place of pointless wandering a person could ever experience.

Understanding these three important traits of the local church can go a long way in helping leaders lead a focused, balanced church.


I grew up in a church tradition that had a lot of committees. The Personnel Committee hired and fired staff; the Curriculum Committee picked out what Sunday School classes would study; the Facility Committee picked out the color of the carpet, (assuming they could ever agree themselves on what color the carpet should be). 

The benefit of committees is that you make decisions with an abundance of counselors, which is wise (Proverbs 24:6).

The problem with governance by independent committees is that you tend to have groups of people making decisions without a perspective of the whole. You invite a silo mentality that inevitably breeds conflict and division because committee members don't have access to the big picture. 

In the best case scenario with independent committees, there is a Committee that oversees committees. However, even then it is next to impossible to get anything done. The oversight committee has to inform all the committees about the decisions of the other committees. Each individual committee has to report to the oversight committee concerning their activities. This opens up an almost infinite number of extra lines of communication, all of which provides the potential for misinformation. 

It also ensures that the majority of your people will be governing ministry, but will be so leveraged in meetings that they'll never get around to doing it. That also breeds division and conflict because each committee will begin to resent those who aren't members of their committee because they aren't doing the kind of ministry the committee directed. The truth is, they'd love to but they are tied up in committee meetings of their own. 

My advice is to simplify your structure as much as possible. Streamline your committees and eliminate as many lines of communication as possible. Otherwise, you'll find yourself hamstrung with meetings, laden with conflict, and looking for a way to blow the thing up and start over. 

How People Change - Review

Last year I posted a review of a small group study our small group had done called "The Gospel Centered Life." The study was powerful, and transformed our small group in some really important ways.

In the back of the study, there is a list of "Gospel-Centered Resources" that includes the book "How People Change" by Timothy Lane and Paul David Tripp.

In short, as the title suggests, "How People Change" talks about how people change.

But far from being another in a long list of self-help pablum currently available at your local Christian bookstore, "How People Change" focuses on the real issues and the only solution. According to this book, "A behavioral approach to change is hollow because it ignores the need for Christ and his power to change first the heart and then the behavior."

Lane and Tripp point to the reality that most Christians live with an under-developed understanding of our identity in Christ. They say "...each of us lives out of some sense of identity, and our gospel identity amnesia will always lead to some form of identity replacement. That is, if who I am in Christ does not shape the way I think about myself and the things I face, then I will live out of some other identity."

"How People Change" looks at several New Testament examples of change, and notice a pattern of change in a person's life: Heat is applied which either causes good fruit or thorns to emerge depending on the nature of the root. Whatever the result, fruit or thorns, the authors say should be seen in light of the cross which provides the power and resources for good fruit, and the cleansing and power for redemption from thorns.

Honestly, I love the heart of this book. For me, it was a book that started really strong and tapered off at the end. The heat, thorn, cross, fruit metaphors and examples started to lose me toward the end of the book. However, the first half of the book was easily, easily worth the price of the book. Three cheers for guys with the perspective and guts to go against the best-seller grain in favor of the truth: our biggest problem isn't self-help; it's a Savior.

Tennis Evangelism

I'm not much of a tennis player. Those of you who go to my church know that there's a story behind that which involves my wife "almost" beating me early in our marriage. But, that's not the topic of my entry today so I won't go there.

If you watch a great tennis match, you know that the best tennis players are those who can volley the ball back and forth in such a way that they maneuver their opponent out of position. Once that is accomplished, they go for the kill shot and win the point.

It strikes me that a lot of us view our intentional conversations with people who are far from God in much the same way. We volley the conversation back and forth hoping they'll make a mistake and get out of position and we'll be able to hit the "kill shot" and lead them to Christ.

Can we stop doing that?

Seems like the point of evangelism is not to make sure our opponent is defeated, but to make sure that our friend wins.

Rather than trying to out-maneuver our opponent so that we can go for the kill shot, it would seem like we ought to view our conversations as opportunities to lob the Gospel so that they come out winners.

It's more than semantics. The difference changes everything about our perspective in the conversation. If we view people who are far from God as primarily opponents who need to be defeated, our approach will be combative and relentless. If we view them as friends with an opportunity to win, we will  treat the conversation gently and kindly, but deliberately and intentionally. It makes all the difference in the world.

Holy Encounters

In his book "The Weight of Glory," CS Lewis says this: "Next to [communion] your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses." 

When we have conversations with people throughout the day, we have an opportunity to interact with beings who are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).

My "to do" list wasn't created in the image of God. My meeting this morning wasn't created in the image of God. My email wasn't created in the image of God. But the hundreds of people I will interact with today - whether bumping shoulders at the grocery store or in a more intentional setting - were created as representatives of a Creator God who is in the business of reconciling the world to Himself (2 Corinthians 5).

CS Lewis says we won't interact with a more holy object today than the people we see. Sort of changes the way you think about those encounters, doesn't it?

Would you Show Up?

Sometimes churches tend to function a lot more like the government than we would like to admit. 

We notice a gap between where people are and where we feel like they ought to be. But we aren't always sure how to move people from Point "A" to Point "B" so we create programs. Sometimes programs are effective, but more often than not they're a feeble attempt for leaders to say "we tried" when they're questioned about "why our people aren't ____." 

Fairly often, church (and government) programs are poorly conceived and poorly executed, and don't achieve the end they were intended to receive. Instead, they're simply opportunities for the same people who always take advantage of programs to take advantage of another program they don't need, which comes closer to enablement than helping. 

As we plan, I'm asking our staff team to think through several questions. Two of them are: (1) Are you confident that a majority of attendees will be your target audience rather than simply professional church people? and (2) If you were not paid to attend, would you want to show up? 

If the answer is "no" to both questions, we try to kill the program before it starts. If it's "no" to one of the questions, we evaluate it pretty closely. We're trying to be efficient and effective, not enablers. 

Directions and the Big Picture

I'm a guy, so I rarely ask for directions. Thanks to GPS technology, I can search for directions in the privacy of my own home where nobody will ever see and I won't have to forfeit my Man Card. It's also why I'm glad I live in Texas where land is flat and there are no trees: I can generally find my bearings wherever I am. My little brother lives in South Carolina and it makes me really nervous to drive there because I can't ever tell where in the world I am. 

In "How People Change" by Timothy Lane and Paul David Tripp, the authors use a great illustration to show how asking for directions can sometimes be a bad thing. 

Let's imagine that you and I are on the corner of a typical big city street. We have a specific place we need to go, but no idea how to reach it. We need directions! Let's say that as we're deciding what to do, a native of the city asks if we need help. This person gives us very precise directions that take us from where we are standing to where we need to go. Has she totally solved our problem? Not really. If we deviate from her instructions in the slightest, we will be lost again, because we still don't know the city. We really need what this woman has: an overall, "helicopter" view of the city. In her mind, she can see how every neighborhood connects with the others and how all the streets intersect. She has such a complete, big picture view of the city in her mind that it is virtually impossible for her to get lost. If she could have downloaded that big picture to us, we would not only get to our destination, but we would never get lost in that city again!

One of the mistakes we make in handling God's Word is that we reduce it to a set of directions on how to live. We look for directions about relationships, church life, sex, finances, marriage, happiness, parenting, and so on. We mistakenly think that if we have clear directions we will be all right. But we keep getting lost! All the wise and precise directions given to us in Scripture haven't kept us from getting lost in the middle of our personal "big city.""

The point to Lane and Tripp's book is that the Gospel provides the overall perspective. Without it, we're doomed to get lost in our journey. But with the knowledge of the Gospel always on our mind, we have all the direction we need.