Spiritual Cookery—Making End Runs Around the Bland and Forgettable

The average healthy church will consume a minimum of 1,040 sermons within a twenty year period, and possibly touch on as many as fifteen thousand Bible verses.   Don’t waste any of it.

My Week Leading Up to Sunday Morning

I’m going to take a break this week from Romans, but I’ll pick up exactly where I left off in my next post. Our church has spent over a month in the strongest back-to-back concentration of negative verses in the Bible.  During this time it hasn’t always been easy.  As the oldest member of our preaching team, I have a job to do—grind out the messages, inspired or not.

I study hard, try to understand what the biblical writers are saying, make relevant hook-ups, and access the commentaries when I feel stuck.  I’ll write and re-write message notes three or four times.

Then I try to reproduce it all in front of the congregation.  Sunday morning requires a tight ritual before I even leave the house, beginning with devotionals, another round of study, breakfast prep, and finessing my wife out the door with me so we can be 45 minutes early to church.  Once there, I’ll have a short prayer meeting with other leaders, and then shoot a quick video for Instagram.

Around the time I stand up, tiny trolls fight to get into my head.  I notice that so-and-so is missing for the second week in a row.  And there are noises.  Non-church people who enter our rented space on the other side of the building haven’t learned the meaning of “inside voice.”   A baby squawks.  An unidentified humming or clicking noise comes through the speakers.  I shake them away, offer a public prayer, open my notes, and after forty minutes of intense concentration, it’s all over.

On my way out the door, someone hands me a fistful of response cards that, judging by the notes on them, suggest some folks didn’t get the point.  Others did.  A few cards are blank, which basically means, Meh.  

In those few hours afterward, I mull over what went right or wrong, and try not to be too bothered with myself.    But regardless how I feel about what happened that morning, a new week is on the horizon, demanding the entire process be duplicated, except this time, better.

I’ve taken steps to decentralize the pulpit and train other preachers to give me regular breaks.  It’s a move that has protected me from burnout, and given others opportunities to grow, yet an every-other-week schedule eventually can have the same deleterious effects.  No matter what the arrangement, if preachers aren’t careful, message prep begins to feel like assembling yet another model airplane.

When the Meeting is Over…

Bland repetition is not just the preacher’s burden, either.  It is precisely the dilemma of listeners who sit through that same sermon, except on the other side of the pulpit.

A countdown begins as soon as the meeting is over.  By the time the average church member is lunching at Five Guys, retention rate of the morning message has already diminished 25%.  By the afternoon nap, 35%. By the Sunday evening routine of prepping kids for the school week, and a few hours of television, fully 65% of the message has vanished.  By the Monday morning crazy commute, 85% has disappeared.  By the mid-week small group, it might be hard for attendants to recall anything except the funny illustration about a dog that took a bite out of the preacher’s sandwich when he wasn’t looking.  That got serious laughs on Sunday morning, and it’s still kind of funny on Wednesday night.

Why Have Sunday Messages, Anyway?

Forgotten sermons don’t rank at the top of anyone’s concerns, and probably shouldn’t if the only harm is forgetting bullet points in a public address.  On the other hand, Jesus Christ is seeking to establish his saints in the truth of God and outfit them for an overcoming life in this world and for eternity.

The Sunday morning experience ala sermon, introduces the fuel to accomplish this plan.  It doesn’t completely accomplish it, but it can certainly set the whole thing in motion by presenting spiritual food that makes an initial impression on our heart.  I’m not talking about comedic amusement, or gee-whiz-I didn’t-know-that moments, or amazement with the speaker’s native eloquence.

The offering of spiritual food is supposed to give us a taste of Christ that invites us further into the kingdom of God.   That sometimes means serving the bitter herbs of repentance—“the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark. 1:15).  At other times it is the lure of sweetness—“How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth” (Ps. 119:103).

God wants to make an impression on us. Peter tells us, “Long for the pure spiritual milk that by it you may grow up into salvation, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Pet. 2:2-3).

But the problem is the Sunday morning experience doesn’t offer the Word of God like a prepackaged TV dinner, with peas in one compartment, apple cobbler in another, mashed potatoes in another.

More likely than not, the preacher will offer the congregation a big, bald chicken with a few spices and a couple of potatoes.  He can’t cook an entire multi-course feast every week, nor is he supposed to.  Neither can a brief time slot once a week be sufficient for the task.

If you want to taste the word of God, it requires an all-points experience beyond the Sunday morning preacher.

How I Tasted the Word of God

In the thick of Romans 1-3 these past months, I found myself needing to remember ground zero requirements.  The first thing I had to do was revisit the idea that when it comes to having a hunger for the Word, there are no professionals, just hungry folk.  If I don’t start my seeking on a note of simple, spiritual desire, I’ll confuse it with professional religious props and ambitions. I must allow my passion for Christ to be the force that propels me into new spiritual vistas, not my dedication to a ministry career.

Tasting the Word by prayerful meditation.  I read a tremendous amount of material each week, but the real issue has little to do with quantity.  Rather, has the Holy Spirit said anything to me?  A couple of weeks back I felt compelled to return to a message I had already preached.  I argued.  What?  I’m going to get behind if I do that!  It’s time to move on now.  We’ve got to keep this train heading forward. But the Holy Spirit apparently didn’t care about my agenda. He was more interested in making sure I got the main point of my own sermon—the sermon I had given the week before.  He wanted me to stay and savor it.  I wanted to sample it and move on to the next cherry pie.

In the end, I settled down and handled those verses again, carefully and prayerfully, until my soul found the truth they spoke.  Thanks and praise once again cascaded through my heart.  It was a personal experience of digging and savoring.  If something in a message has struck you on Sunday morning, that’s not a curious little anomaly, it’s an invitation!  Go back and spend time there.

Tasting the Word through application.  My closet prayer times, while scooping up bits of heaven, still need the complement of life circumstances.  Otherwise the truth is theoretical—made only for a pretend world.  If you can imagine eating cheetoh’s without the cheese coating, you’re starting to get the picture.

Those “negative” verses in Romans splashed back on me when I got trapped behind the driver who started slowing down thirteen blocks before his turn.  In the early stages of road rage I got a memo about guys like me:  Their feet are quick to shed blood…the way of peace they have not known.   I let those verses talk to me, even though I didn’t want to hear what they had to say at the moment.  After a handful of other incidents, the message was clear that although I am mostly a nice guy who drives the speed limit, and listens to classical composers, I am not good enough to justify myself.

Now I don’t mean that I suddenly busted out the standard confession of depravity that aligns me with reformed theology.  No, this was theology getting in my face and saying, “Howdy”—truth instantly addressing my situation.  It was a taste of reality.  As your church goes through a book of the Bible, take the verses covered on Sunday with you (in the forefront of your consciousness) to your workplace, marriage, or school, and watch what God does.

Tasting the Word in community.  I tend toward solitude, but it’s not always good for me. Without a place to share my discoveries, ask questions, and listen, the Word of God starts tasting like an isolated bag of dry flour with no eggs, oil, or sugar to go with it.

Monday night I went to Jacob’s house, where the youngest crowd in our church gathers.  We swapped insights and asked questions about those incredibly awkward Romans verses.  Tuesday morning during the hours of the walking dead, I met with the leaders of the church.  They exchanged some experienced, seasoned perspectives.  Wednesday night I went to the largest, most diverse small group, where they had barbecue sandwiches and chocolate cake (I had to mention that).

The group leader usually re-preaches a five minute compressed version of Sunday’s message, because by then, the trail has grown cold for a lot of people.  Bits and pieces from all kinds of people came together. The experience was for me a buffet taste of the Word in church fellowship.  Try something new, which depending on your church culture, may at first seem a little weird.  Either attend a small group or arrange coffee with some folks in your church so you can ask questions and share insights about the verses the rest of the church is currently navigating.

With all of this “tasting” going on, somewhere along the way I started to get it, not because I’m seminary trained or smart or uber spiritual. I got it through the typical venues where the Holy Spirit has always made Himself available—in study, prayer, daily life, and community.

I roll my eyes these days whenever I hear a new voice going to war against spiritual disciplines, describing them as boxed spirituality or another person portraying the church as smothering, and unnecessary, or the serious lover of the Bible berated as being too doctrinal, or the practice of praying the scripture as being medieval or too mystical.    All together, these form the batter and spices in which the chicken is cooked.

And that has been the kitchen I’ve occupied for the past few months.

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