This was the “General Presbyter” report given to the Presbytery of Monmouth on Tuesday, April 28.
Sitting behind the communion table, waiting for the elders to bring the elements back to the table, I leaned over and whispered to the pastor, “I could listen to you preach every week … ” What makes a preacher someone I could listen to every week? Certainly not theological agreement … I can’t get through even one sermon without finding things I disagree with, let alone week after week. It’s not exegetical excellence or eloquence. It’s not even a great delivery or logical points. What makes the difference? I told the pastor there is an authenticity in his preaching that is a gift. This preacher spoke in a way that was real, relevant, and relational.
Real. The style of preaching was honest, integral, and fit his own personality. It revealed just enough of his own brokenness to be relatable.
Relevant. The sermon dealt with the important stuff. As I listened, I might have a question, and he addressed the question in the next point. He wasn’t afraid to tackle the big topics, the difficult topics, the “elephant in the room” so to speak.
Relational. The sermon was personal. I know some of us were taught never to share personal stories in sermons, but that is so wrong. Appropriately shared personal stories are an invitation to get to know you, person to person, and share a piece of yourself. It’s the model of faithful community for the congregation.
Back in the aughts … my family hosted international exchange students. Our German daughter arrived at age 16 from Hamburg. She had recently been confirmed at her Lutheran congregation. It was a 750 year old church. And, believe it or not, I had the stupidity to ask her if it had always been Lutheran. Ha! She was active in the church; she loved to teach the children, get into conversations with her pastor, sing in the choir. Soon after arriving at our home in Texas, she asked if she could join our congregation. Sure, I said. And she joined the new member class and became an affiliate member of our Presbyterian congregation.
Eva was loved by everyone and got involved in every aspect of church life she could. On Sunday while she was singing with the church choir in the balcony of our small sanctuary, she stopped, looked at the 75 year old elder singing next to her, and said, “My gosh, you guys really believe this stuff!”
What does it take for a young person or church visitor to know that you are the kind of elder that really believes this stuff? Or that you are the kind of church that really believes this stuff? It takes authenticity. Being real, being relevant, and being in relationship.
After one of my recent blog posts about the future church was posted to all of my social media accounts, I shared a short conversation with a Church of Christ friend in Texas. Church of Christ … they’re the ones who sing really well, but don’t allow instruments in worship. He suggested I listen to a conversation on a particular podcast hosted by Phil Vischer of the Veggie Tales with John Thompson, a contemporary Christian musician/author/speaker. He said I might find the style of the host somewhat “off-putting” but I should stick around for the conversation about small groups at approximately the 20 min. mark. I did. And I was quickly reminded of the differences between our generations in worship. Baby Boomers valued excellence. Think about the Praise service with professional musicians and stage lighting … the praise service was designed by the Baby Boomers. Younger people, today, value authenticity. It’s why style of worship is not nearly as important as the realness, the relevance, and the relationship of worship.
Worship with younger people is more eclectic, more self-authored, in the language of the people. We see worshipping communities that focus on self-expression of faith, the inclusion of poetry readings and art stations. It’s in the moment, it allows spontaneity, it allows mistakes and brokenness. It allows speaks from the heart as well as the head. You can’t script authenticity. You can’t fake authenticity. You can try, but we all have very attuned authenticity meters that spot the disingenuous preacher or worshipper or lay leader.
At our last presbytery meeting, I talked about the Keep it 100 campaign of Larry Wilmore on Comedy Central. Wilmore leads his audience to make judgements about the answers of his panelists … how “real”, honest and genuine they are. Here again we see our cultural longing for authenticity.
Jesus kept it 100. Jesus is the model of authenticity. He was real. That is the definition of the incarnation. He was flesh and blood. He used his own spit to make mud to cure the blind man; he invites Thomas to place his fingers in Jesus’ wounds. Jesus was relevant. He “tells it like it is” in the temple and when he speaks with authority in his hometown. He doesn’t avoid the elephant in the room when he tells the woman at the well that she had five husbands. And he re-interprets the law to make it useful to the lives of the people. When he heals on the Sabbath, he explains that the Sabbath was created for people, people weren’t created for the Sabbath. And Jesus is relational. He invites us in to know him. He is social when he drinks at the wedding; he mourns his friend when he cries over Lazarus’ death; he weeps over the city of Jerusalem; and screams the words of the psalmist from the cross, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!?”
Jesus’ real threat to the established church was his authenticity. It was more important to keep it 100 than it was to say the right words or quote the right verse of scripture. His integrity, his courage, and his vulnerability was the threat to the status quo … I think we crave authenticity and community, but we are threatened by it and afraid of what it may demand of us.
Over the next few months the Mission Council will be preparing for visits to every session. We will go out two by two and sit with your session for 30 minutes or so. We are in the process, now, of preparing “talking points” and possible scripts, but, frankly, we all want these visits to be more about authenticity than about per capita or the presbytery budget. We want our conversation together to be real, relevant, and relational.
Over the next few months, you’ll be getting a call from a representative of the council to set up a meeting … say yes, but tell us, “we’re willing to meet with you, but be forewarned, we are going to keep it real.” And let’s enter into those talks being honest in what we say and being willing to hear the truth in what the others say. We will talk about what really matters, the elephant in the room. And we will pay attention to our relationship and respect each other in the process.
Yes, that’s a lot to ask from a half hour visit … so let’s be more authentic in everything we do together. Let’s practice authenticity in our work tonight. Let’s be real, relevant, and relational and attend one of the retreat days at Sabbath House. Let’s get to know each other … you and me … call me and let’s have lunch together with a colleague.