Beatitudes

He said happy
are the hopeless
‘cause the kingdom will be theirs
he said happy
are the sad ones
‘cause God will dry up all their tears

He said happy
are the meek ones
‘cause God will give them all the world
He said happy
are the hungry
‘cause God will feed them ‘till they’re full

But woe to
you who are rich
‘cause you’ll find
life is a
‘bout more than your money and you may find you’re missing out, honey

We’ll be happy
with our mercy
cause we all need mercy, too.
He said happy
are the heart-pure
God will show God’s face to you.
You’ll be happy
when you make peace
reconciling humankind
and the kingdom
will be among you
if you search then you will find.

But don’t think
that you won’t get hit
They’ll drag your
name through the
shameful situation, and they’ll trash your reputation

He said happy
are the hopeless
‘cause the kingdom will be theirs
he said happy
are the sad ones
‘cause God will dry up all their tears

He said happy
are the meek ones
‘cause God will give them all the world
He said happy
are the hungry
‘cause God will feed them ‘till they’re full

The following article originally appeared at Ministry Matters.

When I ask laypeople to write prayers for worship, I give them these instructions.

Group or corporate prayer is an important part of worship. The congregation is not just sitting back and relaxing while one person talks. They are allowing a person (or group of people) whom they trust to give voice to their joys, concerns and petitions.

If you have been asked to pray an offertory prayer, a pastoral prayer or an invocation in our church, you are welcome to find a prayer online or in a book and use it. You can also modify a prayer or write one yourself.

Lots of people think prayers should be off-the-cuff and spontaneous. This is okay in some cases, but if you were bringing a petition to a king, and speaking for a group of people, you would rehearse what you would say, right? You’d probably go over it in your head a hundred times. You’d write it down so that when you delivered your petition, you would come off as a competent representative of your people. I believe that’s the way we should approach corporate prayer. We are not praying “our own hearts.” We are praying for the assembled Body.

The main parts of a public prayer are:

1. Addressing God: Any conversation begins with a greeting or an address, even if it’s just “Hi, there.”

2. Talking to God: This is the “meat” of the prayer. It could be invocation: “Be present with us today.” It could be praise: “You are wonderful.” It could be complaint: “We are tired. Why don’t you hear us?” It could be thanksgiving: “Thanks for this amazing day.” It could be a request: “Bless Aunt Mary.” Anything you can imagine saying to God in a group is appropriate here.

3. Conclusion: There are a lot of formulas people use to “sign off,” but the simplest is just, “Amen,” which means “so be it.” In a group, the congregation will often echo your amen. Read some other prayers to see how folks conclude, and find a way that feels natural to you. “By the power of your Holy Spirit we pray” or “In the name of Jesus Christ” are common ways to end public prayer. The main thing is to avoid stumbling to the end, like: “So, anyway… yeah. I guess that’s it. Amen.” That’s fine for small group prayers or private prayers, but not when you are standing in for the voice of the congregation.

If you choose to write your own prayer, here are some guidelines:

1. Short is good. A paragraph that takes up one-third to one-quarter of a page of paper is probably long enough — that would be around a minute and a half. Pastoral prayers tend to be longer because you have more needs to address, and a diverse congregation with many different needs.

2. Use “we” language. You are speaking for the congregation, so this isn’t about you. It’s about we, the church. “We praise you today,” not “I praise you today.”

3. Let the images do the work. Rather than use a lot of abstract words, think about a single image you can paint with your language. “When we see parents pushing their kids in swings at the park, we remember your motherly love for us.” “We are sad, and the ache in our chests makes it hard to catch our breath.”

4. Use inclusive language. It’s okay to call God “Father,” or use “he,” as long as we remember to balance it out with gender-neutral or feminine imagery as well at other times. Avoid saying “Father and Mother God,” because that’s just overkill. Try instead, “God who loves us like a parent,” or “God who loves us like a mother.” You can also address your prayer to Jesus, in which case it’s fine to use masculine language, or the Holy Spirit, in which case I’d prefer you use feminine language. The main thing here is not to be “politically correct,” but to give people a chance to connect with God using imagery that will help them grow spiritually. Big Daddy God is fine, let’s just not overdo it or limit ourselves to one expression.

5. Think about your own experience. The best resource you have for writing prayers is your own experience and your own spiritual journey. Think about what you need to hear from God, and craft your prayer around that. So, if you’re writing the invocation, maybe you say, “Let us hear your voice, God. Speak our names.” If you’re writing the offertory prayer, maybe you say, “Help us let go our fear of not having enough, and trust in your abundance.” Let God inspire you through your own walk of faith.

6. Avoid preaching. While it’s okay to refer to Scripture or use biblical imagery, you aren’t doing this to teach or change attitudes. Again, remember that you are the voice of the congregation.

Why We Worship in the Afternoon

I had to struggle to close down evening services at the last two churches I served. Both were holdovers from a previous era, a time when people would go to church several times a week. These services had dwindled to a dozen or so older worshipers who faithfully sang the old hymns and turned out to hear a preacher, who was tired from two or three services earlier in the day, deliver a warmed-over homily. In winter, when earlier darkness prevented many of them from driving to church, attendance could be a mere handful. It was hard to end a ministry which had ceased to be productive long ago.

So it’s amusing to me, now that I’m planting a new church, that our primary worship service is in the afternoon! We meet at 4:30. Me, I’m a morning person. If I weren’t a minister of the gospel and could just choose a worship service to suit myself, I’d go to the earliest service I could find so that I’d have a long, uninterrupted stretch of time for the rest of the day—but I’m not the person we’re trying to reach!

The afternoon service works for us for a number of reasons.

1. We can reach a different population. A lot of the people we’re trying to reach sleep in on Sunday mornings. Folks who aren’t in the habit of getting up early to get to church—in other words, most of the population of the United States—often don’t exactly relish answering to their alarm clock on days they don’t have to be at work. Our musicians often have gigs on Saturday nights, so they definitely appreciate a later Sunday start time. Many people work on Sunday mornings, or work night shifts that make mornings tough. Afternoon services allow people to get the rest they need on the weekend.

2. It doesn’t feel “churchy.” Since our goal is to reach people who have been hurt or burned by church, meeting at a time other that Sunday morning helps the service feel less like a traditional (or “traditional-contemporary”) church. Meeting at a different time helps us dissociate our community from the negative experiences people may have had at other churches.

3. We give people time to travel. Young adults travel a lot on the weekends—attending weddings, visiting family, going to festivals or special events, or snatching short vacations because they can’t afford to take off work. I began noticing several years ago when I led a contemporary worship service at a different church that our attendance patterns were often the opposite of our traditional service. On Mother’s Day or near Christmas, our sanctuary would be mostly empty, because many of our young families went to worship with their parents. Meeting in the afternoon gives them the chance to get back in time for worship in our community.

4. We can reach the churched. Yes, you read that right. As a new church, an afternoon service allows people from other churches to attend. While we’re not interested in “sheep-stealing” or cannibalizing members from other churches, we’re always looking for referrals! Several supporters who belong to other churches have brought their unchurched friends to our worship services. They know our community can be a home for people who might never set foot inside a more churchy church, and they are committed enough to making disciples that they are happy to bring their friends to us!

5. We can do mission-oriented evangelism in the community on Sunday mornings. We’re able to do mission projects as well as just go out and meet other people who aren’t already in church. Again, this gives us access to a population most of our churches miss. Our members can invite their unchurched friends to serve lunch at a homeless shelter or do a yard project for a neighbor. For folks who have some antipathy toward church, seeing the church in action on Sunday morning helps shatter the tired old tropes about “sitting in the pews behind stained glass.” Being out in the community on Sunday morning helps turn the church inside-out in their eyes. Many innovative churches don’t even meet on Sundays at all. After Hours Denver meets on Monday nights. Other churches have their primary services on Saturday or even Thursday nights.

The primary downside to having afternoon services is that community events like music festivals and sporting events often happen on Sunday afternoons. Some people might not feel like we’re a “real” church because we don’t meet at the normal time. But as our culture becomes increasingly secular, Sunday mornings are no longer left alone by other organizations for church attendance anyway. For us, Sunday afternoons are a great way to reach a population of people most other churches don’t reach.

[This article originally appeared on Ministry Matters]

The Education of Shelby Knox

This is an excellent documentary, and it raises some great questions about contemporary Christian sexual ethics as well as the public discussion about “liberal” and “conservative” values. I re-watched it in preparation for our October Sermon Series.

It starts with this quotation: “Life in Lubbock, Texas, taught me two things: One is that God loves you and you’re going to burn in hell. The other is that sex is the most awful, filthy thing on earth and you should save it for someone you love. ~Butch Hancock”

I’m not a fan of describing world views in terms of “conservative” and “liberal,” but the fact is that both inside church and outside of it, this is the dominant narrative of American culture. Since the 70’s, political and religious language have grown even closer together. Since I believe in honoring the way people describe themselves, I’ll use their own language.

Even though I have harsh criticism for conservative Christian sexual ethics (summarized so well by the Butch Hancock quotation), I think it’s important to point out that one of the things that made Shelby such an excellent spokesperson is the lessons she learned from her conservative Christian parents. Her passion for social justice is inspired by their idealism. This fits with the findings of Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia, that self-esteem of young women who have conservative Christian parents is higher than those who do not. There are three related points I connect to this:

1. I believe that the Christian story is uniquely suited to teach kids that they have a source of value that is not dependent on their bodies’ social or sexual value to the surrounding culture. It is not the only story that can do so. But I believe its strengths for teaching are in a) the doctrine of incarnation and resurrection (because bodies and how we treat them are important) and b) love of God and neighbor (because loving your neighbor requires emotional self-regulation and delay of gratification). In other words, your body is connected to an ethical system that encompasses all of creation—even people you don’t like. So you deserve honor and respect just as much as your neighbor (or your enemy) does.

2. That conservative Christian fathers change some of their views when they have daughters. Slut-shaming and body-shaming become real threats when directed at your kids. Shelby’s parents gradually (and reluctantly) shift to supporting their daughter’s positions. The local pastors, by contrast, double down on the slut-shaming language. I love the scene where she is able to say to the pastor who attempts to shame her, “I’ve made a commitment to abstain, but not everyone has a supportive family like mine.” Saint Paul would be proud.

3. That liberal parents need to critically examine how they teach their kids about religion, character, pluralism, and activism. A lot of liberal parents I know say that they don’t want to “indoctrinate” their kids into one religion by taking them to church, and instead will just let them sample a buffet of beliefs and let them pick when they get older. As if they won’t do this anyway. Your kids are entirely able to critique their own religion if you do your job and teach them critical thinking. But don’t expect the marketplace to teach them about God, spirituality, commitment, faith, transcendence, or social justice. Don’t expect mass media to teach them about belonging to a community that values individuals’ gifts,  Abercrombie & Fitch will be happy to fill that void with their own values. Dang, join a humanist church if you must.

Anyway, I found the relationship between Shelby and her parents one of the most touching and grace-filled aspects of the whole documentary. In contrast to the political views of the white male pastors in the movie (who assert that liberal politics and Christianity are like “oil and water”), her parents sincerely want to understand her activism and her compassion.

“Do no harm.” This is what it looks like when you take it seriously.

(I’ve enjoyed following Shelby Knox on Twitter since I saw the documentary a few years ago. You don’t have to agree with her, but I think Christians should listen to her.)

Jesus, the Shawarma of God

When you hear the phrase “Lamb of God,” is the mental picture you imagine more like this:

Awwww, how cute!

…or like this:

…or this:

20120824-043344.jpg

…or this?

mmmmmmm... worthy is the lamb!

20120824-043353.jpg

I was recently in an auditorium of thousands of people who were singing, “worthy is the Lamb!” and it occurred to me that among those thousands, there was likely not a single person who had actually ever butchered a sheep. I haven’t butchered a sheep, either. I think often when we hear Biblical metaphors, we think we understand what the authors are saying when we really have no earthly idea.

The whole idea of the sacrificial system is alien to most of us Christians. When we get our meat here in the U.S., it usually comes on a foam platter covered with plastic wrap. We do not see the act of slaughtering meat, the taking of one life to nourish another, as a sacred activity. Except for folks who are vegetarian or vegan for ethical reasons, most of us don’t think too much about how we get our meat.

In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist points Jesus out to the disciples and says, “Look, there’s the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Paul talks about Jesus as the paschal lamb, which was slaughtered for the festival of Passover in memory of God’s victory over the Egyptians over a thousand years earlier. These guys clearly had in mind the concept of lamb, both as a living creature and as meat on your plate. We shouldn’t be shocked by the cannibalistic overtones: Jesus called himself “the bread of life,” too.

The author of Revelation is the one who spends the most time talking about Jesus as the Lamb of God. In his vision, when he sees Jesus, he describes him (paradoxically) as a lamb standing as one who had been slain.

It’s just another example of rich metaphors in the Bible that get emptied of their power and become clichés in the ham-fisted (lamb-fisted?) word smithing of preachers and worship musicians. If you want to imbue the metaphor with some of its lost rhetorical power, take your Christian and atheist friends to a middle eastern restaurant, order some shawarma or lamb kebab, and after taking bite, say, “MMMMmmmmmm… worthy is the lamb!” Those that laugh will get it. Those that look at you with horror might get it, too.

One of the things I look forward to doing in worship at Saint Junia, our new Birmingham church, is reclaiming the power of metaphors that have become clichés and insider-language for church folk. And if we sing “worthy is the lamb who was slain,” you can bet that I’ll have an image of a rotisserie on the screen.

New Church Update, July 8, 2012

We had a full house last night! Thirty-eight adults and children gathered for our second worship and planning meeting. We talked about the second aspect of our life together as a worshiping community: Devotion.

Devotion is how we love God as individuals and small groups. The word “devotion” shares the same root as the word “vow,” and it’s about how we commit ourselves to loving God with our heart, mind, and strength. There are many ways that we can open ourselves to grace and allow God to change us, but I focused on four: prayer, study, giving, and meeting together.

While a lot has been written about prayer, and there are many ways to pray, my biggest learning about prayer in the last several years has been how to pray with my body. After meditating with Buddhists in South Korea to praying with hand-waving charismatic Christians there, watching Jews rock back and forth at the Wailing Wall and Muslims bow with their faces to the ground in Cairo, I realized I was missing out on something. Most Protestants learn to pray with their eyes closed and their heads bowed, stationary and silent, like people asleep. But God is not just an internal voice in my head. The living God likes physicality, and when I learned to pray nonverbally by bowing, kneeling, feeling the texture of beads, or journaling, it was like I had discovered a new country. I hope people in the new congregation find new power in prayer as well.

Study likewise is not just piously poring over scripture as God’s Word. It means wrestling with a text, arguing with the authors, questioning things that seem like cliched truths and bumping up against the rough edges of scripture. I wish progressive Christians had been reading their Bibles in California during the Proposition 8 controversy, and in Alabama during immigration. I wish more Christians memorized the verses that say God shows no partiality, instead of just the comforting, misquoted ones about personal salvation (“I know the plans I have for you,” for example, is really “I know the plans I have for y’all.”)

Giving. Man, where to begin. People in Nigeria, and Zambia, and Kenya dance their offerings down the aisles of the church with joy. Here in the richest country in the world, we’re embarrassed to ask for offerings in church. Because we don’t talk about money, we have a hard time asking for commitment. Uncommitted people gripe the loudest and give the least. You don’t have to look much further than two recent contenders for the presidential nomination. Each loudly said that government shouldn’t help the poor—that’s the job of the churches. Neither one, according to their tax returns, tithed. (For the record, both Obama and Romney do tithe).

I would not ask such a person to be the president of my administrative board, much less of the most powerful nation on the planet. If you don’t believe in the mission and ministry of the organization you serve enough to give to it, you should find an organization whose mission you can tithe toward. When I give the first dollar of my paycheck away, I no longer work for Visa, or beer, or the mortgage company. I work for God. If my first thought with my money is how to spend it on myself, then I work for all the petty gods of this world.

Finally, meeting together is part of devotion and how we love God. Theresa of Avila said that in order to know God better, one should frequent the company of God’s friends. It is difficult to be accountable to these other things I’ve mentioned without being part of a community. Even Jesus needed a circle of 12 friends around him, and needed their prayers. If Jesus felt the need, I figure I’d better do the same.

After the sermon, we shared communion. In the response part of our worship and meeting, we did some polling about potential names for the new church, and Angela led the group in making various kinds of prayer beads. The word “bead” actually comes from the word for prayer, because they’ve served as a mnemonic device in many cultures for many centuries for prayer and meditation.

I am excited that people seem to be turned on by what we’re starting here, and that they are beginning to dream about the possibilities available to us. God is doing great things.

What I Learned Last Sunday

A week ago Sunday (June 24) I got to visit Innerchange UMC in McCalla, Alabama. Several Trinity members visited Innerchange last year and told me that I should visit. (It is tough to visit other churches when you are a pastor, but I’m beginning to think it is essential. I’ve learned so much from just the last few Sundays of visiting around).

RIght off, I loved the signage. It was so easy to see where to go. Big, brightly-colored signs are right on the buildings pointing the way to different areas. Greeters welcomed us warmly. I was on crutches and someone held the door open for me. We were directed to the coffee bar and to a welcome table. Mike, the pastor, was sitting at the table and he welcomed us, too. He is the founding pastor of Innerchange, and I really appreciated his words to us newbie church planters. I also appreciated during the prayer time that he offered a special prayer for us. One lady sitting beside us put her arm around me as we prayed. It meant a lot to me.

I think the coolest thing was just the genuine sense of community there. I liked the informal, semi-round seating in the warehouse. Mike sat down to preach, and it felt more like shooting the breeze in someone’s living room than a sermon. People felt free to comment and talk back to him.

I also really appreciated the fact that the band clearly wrote a lot of their own music. The last song in particular was good (it had a good meter as well as rockin’ rhythm). Although I can’t quite recall it, if I heard it again I could sing along immediately.

Worshiping in the round in the gym at The *Story

I mentioned to my group on Sunday that for a long, long time I’ve wanted to design worship in the round or semi-round, like an ancient Greek theater or one of the coves along the Sea of Galilee. We found that in our contemporary service at Trinity, when people sit in a circle, they can hear each other sing. They tend to participate more. They can see other faces and it has a much more intimate feel. The main action of worship happens among us instead of in front of us. When we began an alternative worship service called The *Story at Fairview, we worshiped in the round and most people seemed to really dig it.

I didn’t get to visit another church’s worship service this past Sunday, but I hope to go somewhere else that will stretch me a bit.

Church Update: July 1, 2012

On July 1, twenty-seven people gathered at our house for our first afternoon worship and planning meeting, followed by a potluck supper (because you can’t be a real church without potluck suppers!). The vision of this new church is to become a diverse community of sinners, saints, and skeptics who join God in the renewal of all things. “The renewal of all things” is a pretty big idea, so we try to break it down into five aspects of our life together: Worship, devotion, compassion, justice, and witness. Each of the five Sundays in July we will gather at 4:30 to talk about one of the five areas.

All of these flow from the two great commandments: Love God and love your neighbor. We love God as a community through worship. We love God individually through our devotion. We love our neighbors as a community by doing justice in Birmingham and in the world. We love our neighbors individually through ministries of compassion. Binding all of them together is our witness to what God has done and is doing through Jesus Christ.
We also went about the business of doing business and delegating roles. Over the next few weeks Angela and I will be talking with folks about how they would like to grow spiritually through this new church, and what they can in turn offer to others.
We are so thankful to Trinity and Canterbury UMC for all their encouragement, financial support, willingness to serve, and prayer. God is already doing great things.

Dear Songwriters: Please Learn This!

Okay, I’m going to make people mad with this post because I’m writing about music.

Songwriters, if you want a congregation to actually sing along with your cool new worship song, you need to know what this is. These few pages in the back of a traditional hymnal are called a metrical index:

from Church Hymnary, Canterbury Press, 2006

You see some little numbers in bold, and under those numbers are some tune names. Those little numbers show how many syllables comfortably fit the meter of a tune.

For example, in the above photo, John Bell has written some lyrics to fit his tune called “Lincoln.” The first line has five syllables, the second has five, the third has six, and the last has five: 5-5 6-5. The most natural way to fit lyrics to this tune is to write one phrase of 5-5 syllables and one of 6-5 syllables, like this:

Now that evening falls,
gently fades the light;
moon replaces sun and
day takes leave of night.

-John Bell

Judging from most of the contemporary worship music produced these days, I figure writing lyrics that fit a meter is either passé, or people just plain don’t know what a meter is.

Here is an example of lyrics that fit a meter:

The very first lines convey information about the rest of the song, and listeners can immediately predict the pattern of the verse: 9-4, 9-4. This makes it easy to sing along, clap, gyrate your booty, or whatever you do when you hear such stuff. Nearly every syllable has it’s own note in every phrase.

Here is an example of lyrics that are irregular or have no meter at all:

Now, as much as I like the song “Jeremy,” there is no way to sing along with it the first time you hear it. You cannot predict where the syllables are going to hit the notes, if they hit at all. Rhyme, which also helps people predict how to sing, is totally absent in this song. Again, I like this song, but it isn’t singable on a first (or second, or third) hearing. You wouldn’t actually use this song in worship, but it would be nearly impossible to do so for the simple fact that the lyrics are unpredictable.

U2, a band a lot of contemporary musicians try to emulate, also sing a lot of irregular lyrics. Now, if you listen to the words often enough and memorize them, you may be able to sing along with them, but if you try to get a group of diverse people who have never heard the lyrics before to sing along, you are pretty well guaranteed to fail.

I’ve heard artsy-fartsy songwriters criticize metrical tunes as being too “singsongy.” YES!!!!! Exactly! Singsongy predictability is what you need if you want a group of people to sing along. Using an irregular meter says to visitors, “You need to be a regular attender, an insider, to know and understand this music. Maybe you’ll be able to sing along after you’ve been coming for a few weeks.” No, thanks.

I’m going to go ahead and lay this out there—this is one of the reasons contemporary Christian music in white churches is so white. African-American musicians don’t seem to have this problem. In most African-American churches, the roles of the soloist and the choir are clearly spelled out, and anyone who wants to can sing along at least with the chorus. In addition to meter, there is a tradition of call and response:

Even funky lyrics that play with irregularity can be predictable. You can use rhymes and rhythm to create a predictable pattern, and then layer your soloist’s unpredictable lyrics over the top:

The ironic thing is that I’ve heard worship musicians say that the above songs are too much like performances. When I’ve said that worship music should be more like Ben Harper and Lenny Kravitz and less Bono, they make the same comments. Really? Who is easier to sing along with?

Even the most rhythmic and inspiring of white-people worship songs lend themselves not to groove, but to swaying gently with hands in the air partially because they have irregular meters. Check this one out by Chris Tomlin, and if you don’t already know it, try to predict how to sing it even when the lyrics are projected in front of you:

Here is how the meter goes:
First verse: 12-10-12-12-4
Chorus (first line): 55-13-6 (cheating because “Amazing” actually hits four notes)
Chorus (second line): 44-13-6
Second verse: 12-12-12-12-4

Not only are the lyrics complex, there are just too dang many syllables in each line. Again, I want to point out that I like the song just fine, I just think it’s lousy as a congregational song. It may have a place in worship as a special musical offering or a solo.

Here is a song that I really like. It has great lyrics, consistent imagery, and is just plain beautiful. But if you’ve never heard it before, try to figure out where to sing, even if lyrics were projected in front of you.

Again, I will say that I like this song. It is just not a good congregational song. This is where many music leaders object that if you hear it enough, you can sing with it, but that’s like saying an auditorium full of 20,000 Pearl Jam fans can sing along to Jeremy.

People often talk about the distinction between “worship” and “performance,” and they can get into all sorts of abstract arguments about it, most of them dealing with the subjective emotional experience of the individual. But when you worship you are dealing with a community, and the more relevant questions are things like, “What enables this body to act as one in praising its creator?” I think it’s primal stuff: bread, wine, water. Rhythm, call, response, melody, harmony. I wish more contemporary songwriters understood this.

One more thing with regard to meters: My pet peeve is the song “Hungry.” This song has a meter, but the syllables hit the notes in odd places.

I’m FALLing on my knees
Of-FERing all of me
Je-SUS you’re all my heart is longing for.

As a friend of mine from high school used to say, your emPHAsis is on the wrong sylLABle.

It drives me nuts that we have such a rich musical heritage in Birmingham churches, black and white, high church and low, mainline and independent, secular and sacred—and we keep singing stuff like this. It’s not that I don’t like songs by Chris Tomlin and David Crowder, it’s just that as a pastor and worship leader it’s my job to help a community work, pray, and sing together. It’s hard to do that with lyrics that are not easily singable.

I went to Innerchange UMC last Sunday (which I will talk about in my next post), and I loved the fact that they write a lot of their own music. The last song they sang was instantly singable and it had lyrics relevant to their own community. I would love to have such music in our new church.

Lessons from Last Sunday

One of the things I’ve been looking forward to is the time I’ve scheduled this summer to visit other churches and learn from them. I visited a major Birmingham mega-church this past Sunday, and although I did not get to hear the senior pastor preach, I did get to observe what happens in worship.

I’ll go ahead and confess I’m inclined to be annoyed at this large, dynamic, successful church. Part of my annoyance is healthy competitive spirit, but it is part envy as well. I have been in ministry in other cities and other churches dwarfed by a large neighboring church, stymied by attempts to do ministry because “______ Church is already doing that far better than we can.” Rather than being excited by the other church’s positive impact in a community, I’ve been resentful. Members would get siphoned away from our church to the larger one because of bigger youth and children’s programs, and I would mutter about “sheep-stealing.” (To be fair, I’ve also been in ministry in a large, dynamic church that has probably done the same to smaller neighbor churches as well).

So when the preacher began his sermon with a ten-minute sales job for the church, I was initially put off. Over and over again he said that he loved this church, that he loved the pastor and the pastor’s family, that he loved Birmingham and the impact the church was having on Birmingham. I began checking my clock. Was this guy ever going to get around to preaching? But then I began to reflect that if people are exposed to this kind of cheerleading on a regular basis, they probably begin believing it. They might even begin acting on it.

One of the most powerful tools leaders have to change behavior is called “attribution.” It means that you attribute to someone the qualities you want for them to have, and then they try to live up to your expectations.

In one famous psychology experiment, researchers established a target behavior for three classes of fifth graders. The first class was offered a pizza party if they would keep their classroom free of litter. The second class was offered no reward, but the principle would visit the room and say, “Wow, you kids keep your room so tidy. You must like to keep your room clean.” The last class was the control group. Guess which class did the best job at keeping their room tidy? Not the one with the reward incentive, but the one to whom the principle attributed tidiness.

It has become popular to ridicule the self-esteem movement in education of the last decade, but it is mostly because both its critics and advocates misunderstand incentives and behavior change. It is well-established that attribution is a powerful tool for changing behavior for both individuals and communities. This is why good-hearted, well-intentioned pastors who whine about people not participating in missions can’t actually guilt people into serving, while gung-ho pastors who incessantly praise their churches succeed. People live up or down to expectations.