Cutting Room Floor: Bible


I’m starting a new series, mostly for our church family that are the research “left overs” from the most recent sermon.  Often an effective sermon comes down to what you don’t say as much as what you do, and thus editing out good material becomes essential. Here, then are some of the leftovers from this past week’s message:  They are somewhat random and unconnected, but for those wanting more thoughts on Scripture, they may be helpful:  Continue reading “Cutting Room Floor: Bible”

#SoulRenewal Reading



I am about to embark on a grand adventure of 14 weeks away from the church I love for an extended time of Sabbatical renewal. Words truly cannot convey the care our family feels at having this opportunity to soak in God’s goodness. I will be on a rhythm of “serve, learn, play” which are 3 of the ways my soul connects with God. We will be traveling for 6 weeks, then home for 8 weeks.

For the “learn” component, one aspect will be some unstructured reading time.  I’ll give a brief annotated bibliography below with links if anyone is interested in grabbing one of these books.  Reading good theologians has been formative in my relationship with God and my outlook on faith.  Continue reading “#SoulRenewal Reading”

Ira Glass on the Craft of Story



Ira Glass is one of the most gifted story curators today. His most known work is the radio show/podcast “This American Life” but he also has the goods on story composition. About every other year he stops by town to host a seminar which is part “This American Life” and part explanation of how he performs it.  For part one, “Exactly Human Sized Stories” click here.  Part two below are bullet point highlights of what Ira taught.


  • He earns his right to speak by being a great listener and by providing understated meaning to story, which is to say, to our lives. He has a light touch and doesn’t oversell.  Understatement is the new language of persuasion.
  • He learned story telling from his Rabbi.  Move the plot forward, then step out of it and verbally reflect on what happened, then back into the plot, reflect etc. Ira told us with chargrin, “I thought I had invented this technique. It turns out my rabbi used it, as does every preacher every Sunday. And then I found out that is how Jesus taught.”  A fine example of this was Brene Brown’s most recent talk at Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit.  
  • Narrative is the back door entrance to a deep place within us. It touches us deeper than argument or debate can. Narrative can actually change someone, debate rarely does.
  •  Ira was equal part storyteller, journalist and DJ. He spoke with an iPad in his hand and he was frequently launching audio as he spoke. We heard quotes from people, fade in music to change mood etc and somehow it wasn’t remotely hokey. It made me wonder what preaching would be like if it were modeled in a similar fashion with soundtrack fades and 3rd party quotes. Ira also mentioned that he has a full-time staff of 8 people producing the show each week.  Is the preacher constraint by resource in this area?
  • “Dialogue is the “ground zero” of a good story.”
  • TAL chooses amazing music for their transitions. Ira uses soundtrack and music that ‘isn’t too interesting.’ He starts speaking on top of the music about the time you’d start singing if it had melody.
  • One of Ira’s best shows was an episode where he played interviews from his earliest days as a journalist.  They were cringeworthy and awkward. Ira says, “Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
  • Think the modern attention span is dead?  TAL runs for 58 minutes and the average time listeners spend with the show is 48 minutes. Ira, “once they tune in, we’ve got them until we’re done with them.”  Stunning feat for radio and evidence that Ira Glass and TAL are one of the most important story curators alive today.

#TBT The Conference I’m Still Looking For

For #TBT, we’ll revisit some older themes and give them a fresh look. I first posted this in September of 2011 and I suppose you could say, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

I’m told there are over 350 church leadership conferences per year in the United States.


350+  that is A LOT and a majority of those conferences feature the same basic approach centered around an inspiring talk given by a gifted church speaker. This model of conference is great and some groups absolutely nail it (Catalyst and Willow Creek for example.) But I often find myself sitting in such a conference looking around at the people in the audience. What are they wrestling with…what questions do they have? I listen to the excellent talk, and I wonder how a smaller group of us could ever get in a room with that speaker to ask follow up questions, dig into what he or she said – sort of like we did in seminary after the class lecture, when we’d grab a coffee with fellow students or the professor and ask questions, process what we’d heard and really make it apply deep into our lives.

Actually, I did once go to a conference like that – it was the best conference I’ve ever attended. In 2005, Leadership Network hosted a conference with a simple premise: no music, no MC, no fun videos.  Just great content from top church practitioners over 2 days.  Here’s how it worked:

On Day 1, we went room to room all day to listen to each presenter talk for about 20 minutes. The conference had about 30 speakers and each speaker simply gave their 20 minute talk several times per day, so in a full day, you could catch about 15 speakers.  You’d simply look at the list of speakers and bios, and choose who’s 20 minute talk you wanted to sit through.

These talks were designed to be a preview for day 2 – sort of a taste and teaser of what the person had to offer.

Day 2 was where the genius of the event showed itself.  Same speakers, but this time they each had 90 minutes and they were directed to only answer our questions, not initiate any content themselves.  In other words, the audience got to shape the content of the presentation.  So on day 2, we could listen to 6 or 7 speakers in a full day.

After the first day’s preview talks, I knew I wanted to hear everything Tim Keller had to say. This was 2005 and Keller was not a widely known name like he is now. So I went to Dr Keller’s room along with maybe 12 – 15 other folks.  Tim Keller introduced the morning by saying, “Yesterday you heard my brief spiel. Today, I’ve been instructed not to initiate any talk at all. I’m to talk about only what you want me to talk about. What would you like to discuss?”

Silence…until Mr Question here realized what a gift we’d just been given.

90 minutes of a Tim Keller press conference where WE were the press. 90 minutes of pastoral practitioners asking a fellow pastoral practitioner anything about anything, then follow up questions, then more detail, then peeling back a layer to dig in further. 90 minutes where we get to hear from one of Christianity’s finest pastoral minds, but where we drove the content. We had him talk about apologetics, engaging the skeptical mind, worship style, leadership challenges, staffing a growing church.  It was an amazing 90 minutes because he always scratched where we were itching.  

The time flew by, a thank you and a handshake and then onto the next room. Larry Osborne, Mike Slaughter, Dave Ferguson….the list went on and on.

Best. Conference. Ever.

Never seen it done before.  Never found it since.  It worked because the approach of the conference got behind a preplanned talk and hit a target the audience was aiming for.  If you think about it, most pastors go to a conference for ideas, encouragement, tactics and a challenge to do something different.  Surely a great way to accomplish this goal is to let the audience partially dictate the content.  And sure, we’ve probably all sat through a Q&A session at a conference that went badly: an audience member making a passive aggressive point, or wanting to argue something obscure.  This wasn’t that.  This was a full day of church leaders hungry to learn asking specific questions to church leaders who had something helpful to offer.

So often what pastors need is more of a “press conference” approach where the audience can help shape the content and make the speaker talk about what we’re wrestling with. 

So how about it, conference organizers?  How about holding a church leadership conference like this?  You could even call it, “Press Conference.”  I’d go.

Two Elements of Great Story Telling

1. What to tell:  Something fresh, unexpected, funny, moving, unusual, but at the same time something that expresses a commonality of the human experience.  Our stories must be “human sized” so listeners can see themselves in them.  Preachers are guilty as charged of telling superhuman (super Christian?) stories that communicate to people, “you’re not good enough, so don’t bother trying.”  We can also be guilty of finding stories that just don’t move people because they don’t matter.  I’m struck by Fred Craddock’s promise to his congregation that, to the best of his ability, he would only preach sermons that matter and this involves telling stories that are surprising and funny yes, but always, always, always capturing the common human experience.

Find exactly human sized stories, which leads to number two.

2. How to tell it: This is actually more difficult than finding a good story.  Crafting it well all comes down to editing and timing.  Tell it well.  What is the essence of the story?  How can I tell it to put people in the room with the characters?  Where is an appropriate place for tension and/or humor?  Often times our stories don’t move people because we don’t spend enough time crafting how to tell them.

Want to hear some examples?  Here are two:

This one is 4 minutes.  I promise you’ve probably never heard of such a situation, yet, having never experienced it, you’ll find yourself in it.  Click here for this StoryCorp human sized story told well.

And then come back and listen to the first 5 minutes of this story.

A 5 day small step or giant leap?

This post is inspired by the always great Geoff Surratt and his blog post here

There are 5 days between Christmas Eve and Sunday 29th, which is to say that most pastors will be planning 3 different worship gatherings in an 8 day period.  Sunday Dec 22, Tues Dec 24th, Sunday Dec 29th.

What will people experience at these 3 services?  Will the gap between styles of service be “one small step” or “one giant leap?”  If people were to attend the big Christmas service and then come back the following Sunday, would they recognize that they are at the same church?

We wrestled this issue to the ground several years ago with the unexpected benefit of not having resources to “wow” people.  We were small (around 180 people), had no money, and we met in an Elementary Cafeteria.  I wish I were making this up, but when you got up to receive communion, Many Moore’s “Got Milk” poster was looming overhead.  Tony Hawk was grabbing the rails right next to the body-of-Christ-broken-for-you.  So rather than trying to wow when we had no wow, we pledged to simply offer what we had.

– The Bible, preached (hopefully) in a relevant and engaging way.

– an opportunity to worship through song and communion.

– a welcoming DNA, no matter what you’ve done and what’s been done to you.  No previous church experience necessary.

These 3 “offerings” have the great benefit of being largely recession proof AND just happen to be what people are most craving.  They also had the benefit of welcoming churched and unchurched people on equal terms.

Don’t get me wrong, the powerful special, cool video or drum line with black lighting is amazing and a treat.  They definitely inspire and excite.  But what most people want is to make sense of their lives,  meet folks who aren’t freaky, and encounter God.

Not necessarily in that order.

And people can come and receive that on any given Sunday.  But if you “pull out all the stops” on one Sunday, and the next Sunday have only holes where the “stops” used to be, you’re going to confuse folks.   So for our “special” sundays, we aim to “be the best version of our normal selves” and not some special production that has nothing in common with a normal Sunday.  That way, any special item we add is fun to be sure, but not the meat of what we offer.  And we can offer that every Sunday, special music or not, cool video or not.  Live camel or not.

Ok, actually, live camels are cool year round.

So what’s your approach.  Will the gap between Christmas Eve and the next Sunday be one small step or one giant leap?

Bob Goff and Creepy Stalkers


Bob Goff has a new book out called “Love Does.”  Yes, I recomment it.  Bob Goff, alone, is evidence for the existince of God.  Oh, and he’s also the Consular to Uganda and responsible for protecting and rescuing child slaves in Uganda.  Just another hero following Jesus and taking him seriously.  Just another astonishing apprentice of Jesus who responds to the grace of God with some serious action.  Here are his thoughts on stalking Jesus:

“A few years ago, I decided that I was no longer going to collect all this information about Jesus.  I’m going to do stuff with Jesus. I’m not going to collect all this information about him because they have names for people who collect information about someone but don’t really know them.  We call those people stalkers!  And I realized that I was stalking Jesus and creeping both of us out.”

Want more?  check out this video below:

Goff Family Parade 2012


From Concept to Fleshed out sermon

Three or four years ago, I stumbled across the above image on a Flikr forum.  I found it completing arresting and enchanting and decided it would make a strong basis for a Christmas sermon series.  I grabbed the image and filed it “for future use.”

As I was looking through my random idea folder (now on evernote) I came across a quote from my favorite Old Testament Scholar, Walter Brueggemann.  He wrote, “No wonder Jesus was a revolutionary.  His mother sang him protest songs as lullabies.”  I don’t remember when I found this quote – I think I was listening to one of his lectures on Itunes University while commuting to an appointment.  Either way, the quote had struck me and I’d taken 10 seconds to record it for future use.  It joined the list of hundreds of random quotes, ideas and articles that strike me for any particular reason.

That quote and that image became the basis of our 2011 series, Christmas Revolution.  For Scripture, it seemed perfectly fitting to use the “original carols of Christmas” sung by Mary, Simeon, and Zechariah and the Angel.  We got permission from the designer of the graphic to use his image and we printed it on Christmas Ornaments for our church to pass out as invitations.

The series was one of my favorites to preach – it hit many of the lesser known parts of the Christmas story which are deeply rooted in the history of Israel, so the series was rich with Biblical teaching.  It kept a running thread of “revolution” and how the true meaning of Christmas is to up-end us and astonish us.

This is my primary way of developing a sermon series.  It starts with an idea I’ve heard or seen or received from reading Scripture.  Over time the idea gets some meat on it and forms into a cohesive overall theme.  The above example is obviously quite comprehensive.  Others happen quite simply – reading a passage or a commentary, hearing a story can all trigger an idea that brews its way over time into a fleshed out structure for a series.  The reason I’ve had series ideas sitting dormant for years is that they’ve never moved from idea to fleshed out structure.

So for this Christmas series, the graphic and the Bruegemann quote helped me determine to use the songs and poems from Luke and Matthew.  Then the calendar helped me figure out which passage to do when.  The overall theme of revolution/up-ending/astonishment gave me plenty of room to find stories.  So when I opened my Bible on a Tuesday to start work, 50% or more of the structure was already in place.

Obviously, not every series can work this way, but at any given time, the human brain can be stewing on 8 – 10 different concepts and ideas.  My current series idea document has 36 series ideas.  My “random quotes and thoughts” has hundreds of entries.  When I retreat to plan a calendar, I look over it all and see what comes up and how to connect thoughts.

Obviously, I have a whole other process for the final preparation of the sermon.  This process above doesn’t create a sermon, it creates an overflow of ideas and a solid skeleton for a sermon.  Perhaps another time I can blog on the Tuesday – Saturday preparation process of finalizing the message.

Everyone prepares differently and I am far from an example of an experienced preacher, but this method works for me and over time I’ve developed it to help me get ahead of the Tuesday blank page syndrome.  I’ve found that it doesn’t solve all my preaching challenges, but it makes me more immune to the MHP syndrome of interruptions.

Constructing a Preaching Calendar

Just recently I’ve taken to making my own beef jerky.  My kids are jerky fanatics and making our own is much cheaper than buying.  Jerky, it turns out, is all about marination time.  The longer you marinate the meat, the better the taste.  And so we segue into the 12 month preaching calendar.  Its about extending the marination time of ideas.  Its also about paying attention to the rhythms of the year.  

At the bottom are two examples of 12 month preaching calendars to this post so you can see what they look like.  One is from Ron Johnson, pastor of Restoration Community Church and the other is mine.

Ron, particularly, pays attention to overall church rhythm and his team plan accordingly.  His “big events” all revolve around the sermon calendar, so he’ll plan a day of service to the community in conjunction with a series on action, or a summer series on the Bible while people are in soul care mode.  This past Easter, his church was really creative with the whole “come to church we’ll give you a gift” thing.  If you brought a friend to Easter, or if you were a first time guest, Restoration would donate money toward an organization that freed people out of slavery.  Modern skeptics would prefer that over another coffee cup any day.

Preaching calendars are a result of a planning retreat.  If I didn’t get away for a night or two, I’d never get a calendar built.  You can’t build one on the fly, or in an afternoon.  You have to build it, pray over it, move things around, pray over it.  Not unlike an actual sermon, the calendar comes together over time, with marination.  Before I go on retreat, I ask our elders, key staff and some volunteers for input into sermon ideas.  What do they think should be covered over the coming year?  After the retreat, I run the calendar by our elders and also hand it out to planning staff.

As for series ideas, I keep a running document of ideas that I can pull from.  My current document is 7 pages long with 36 different ideas for sermon series.  I’ve also attached a sample pdf of sermon series ideas.  Some of the ideas are really bad, some are stale, because they’ve been sitting there so long.  When I came up with the title, “Grudge Report” for a series on Forgiveness, the “Drudge Report” was known in pop culture.  I’m not sure it is still as known now.  MC Hammer, on the other hand…..he’ll always preach!

A quick note for my “exegesis only” friends: don’t let the series titles put you off, many of these ideas are exegetical book studies.  (I refer you, yet again, to MC Hammer.)  Just because you’re exegetical, doesn’t mean you cannot have some fun.  Your people will appreciate the extra effort.

So long term sermon planning is a combination of planning retreat, 12 month calendar and ongoing sermon idea document.  These three tools work really well to keep a preacher’s head well above the coming Sunday and give months of lead time to collect stories, marinate ideas etc.

Here are the 3 documents:  (warning:  long content!) Continue reading “Constructing a Preaching Calendar”

Sanity and the Preaching Calendar

When I first started interviewing with Discovery about being the preaching pastor, I felt this nagging concern that I would never be able to preach every week.  I’d simply run out of ideas or worse yet, I’d stand in front of the congregation one Sunday with an empty head and heart and having no option left but to glare at everybody and say, “what are you looking at?” and then walk away and sell cars.  (retroactive warning:  preacher psychosis!)

At our recent BLN North gathering, Joe Beckler discussed the sermon calendar and the importance of planning ahead, both for the preacher’s stamina and the rest of the team’s sanity.  Two out of our team regularly work on a 12 month calendar and one other guy works 3 or 4 months ahead, but many of our guys do not work an annual calendar.

This post: benefits of a sermon calendar.  Next post: how we create one.  Then:  taking a series idea and fleshing it out into a working sermon series full of content.  

Continue reading “Sanity and the Preaching Calendar”