What audience feedback means—especially to preachers

Billy Joel gets it.

This veteran entertainer does something I find fascinating.

According to The New Yorker (October 27, 2014), Joel “grew tired of having to look out at the fat cats in the two front rows, the guys who’d bought the best seats, and then sat there projecting a look of boredom that (says)…’Entertain me, Piano Man.'”

It was dampening his own enthusiasm, and that of his band, to have the non-responsive on the front rows. He wanted the fans nearest him to be enthusiastic participants in the evening’s activities.

That’s why “Joel’s people stopped selling the two front rows and instead send the crew into the cheap seats before the show to hand out tickets to people of their choosing.”

“Joel believes it helps buck up the band.”

I can believe that.

Every preacher knows.

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The clue that tells the story on you

“Who are you that you are afraid of man who dies, and of the son of man who is made like grass?” (Isaiah 51:12)

We are reading through the gospels, watching the interaction between the religious bigshots as they bully the Lord Jesus Christ–imagine that!–and are brought up short by noticing the prominent role fear played in the lives of these people. Consider…

–“Herod feared the multitude” (Matthew 14:5).  Ah, a good reminder that tyrants always fear their subjects. Always.

–“The Pharisees feared the multitude” (Matthew 21:46). And so do religious bigshots fear their people.

–King Herod feared John the Baptist (Mark 6:20).  Wickedness fears righteousness because it cannot understand it, cannot control it, can’t intimidate it, and cannot silence it.  God’s faithful people must never forget this for one minute.

–The chief priests and scribes wanted to destroy Jesus, but “they were afraid of him, for all the multitude was astonished at His teaching” (Mark 11:18).

–The Lord Jesus said to the disciples, “Why did you fear? Where is your faith?” (Mark 4:40).  Even the Lord’s closest friends were filled with fear.

 Nothing speaks so eloquently about who you are as what you fear. And whom you fear.

We are literally defined by our fears.

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Answering questions no one is asking; curing illnesses no one has

The first thing a salesperson seeks to do, whether standing at your front door or staring out of your television screen, is to convince you that you are in trouble without this product.

The opening lines of all those fund-raising letters we receive through the mail are phrased to alarm us. Something is bad wrong and here is the solution and you should do something about it. The recommended solution is to buy this product, subscribe to this service, or hire this attorney. Or, of course, send your money!

Sound familiar?

The September 22, 2014, issue of TIME features on its cover an arm with a computer display giving the number of calories consumed that day, one’s pulse,  conversations since climbing out of bed, and even how many steps the individual has taken.  And that’s just for starters.

The issue celebrates (and worries about) the new “Apple Watch,” the latest thing from those people who gave us the smartphone in my pocket at this moment.  This latest high-tech doodad hits the stores early in 2015 and will be all the rage, no doubt.

The text beside the cover picture reads: “Never Offline.  The Apple Watch is just the start. How wearable tech will change your life–like it or not.”

One paragraph in particular has stayed with me ever since reading the issue.

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Neckties and drum sets: Things we should get over

“Concerning Him we have much to say… (but) you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God….” (Hebrews 5:11-12).

If we do not settle what are the basic principles and doctrines constituting faithfulness to God, we will argue over silly things, unworthy issues, secondary matters.

I’m 74 years old and the playbook says I should be a defender of the status quo, reacting against modern innovations and speaking with reverence of the glorious days of old when I was a young minister just starting out.

I’ll not be doing any of that.

The status quo is nowhere I want to camp out.  The past is nowhere I want to live. Nostalgia, as they say, is not what it used to be. The past is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Modern innovations are what we make of them, good or bad. And the glorious days of yore were anything but glorious.  They were amazingly like today and a lot like tomorrow.

Personally, I like laptops and smartphones.  I love Facebook and enjoy blogging.  I like having 150 channels on my television (since there’s rarely anything worth watching on 140 of them!). I love the SiriusXM radio on my car; it sure makes those long drives easier.

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The thing to bear in mind about that first Palm Sunday

“The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4).

“I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened so that you may know….” (Ephesians 1:18).

When they welcomed Jesus into the city on that Sunday, they did not know what they were doing.

In praising Him as the Son of David who comes in the name of the Lord, they said more than they knew. They professed more than they believed.

“Most of the multitude spread their garments in the road and others were cutting branches from the trees, and spreading them in the road. And the multitudes going before Him, and those who followed after were crying out, saying, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’  (Matthew 21)

When they crucified Him on Friday, these people were still in the dark….

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No one spoke to you at church? That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:34).

“We’re not going back to that church. We attended once and not a soul spoke to us.”

This may be the most common complaint offered by church visitors.

Our people have come to expect that churches will be welcoming to strangers, open to newcomers, receptive to inquirers, and alert to first-timers.

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What the carnal mind will never “get” about worship

Can we talk about worship?

Here are a few quotes to get us started. I cannot vouch for the authenticity of any of them, having found them in that motherlode of fascinating quotes, real and imagined, solid and made-up-on-the spot, the internet.  Smiley-face goes here….

1) From actor Brad Pitt:  “I didn’t understand this idea of a God who says, ‘You have to acknowledge me. You have to say that I’m the best, and then I’ll give you eternal happiness. If you won’t, then you don’t get it!’ It seemed to be about ego. I can’t see God operating from ego, so it made no sense to me.”

There is a reason this makes no sense to you, Mr. Pitt.  The Apostle Paul put it this way: “A natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him.  Nor can he understand them, for they are spiritually appraised” (I Corinthians 2:14).

Don’t mean to be harsh in that assessment, but it explains why so many on the outside look at Christian worship and shake their heads. They just don’t get it.

Let me repeat that: They. Do. Not. Get. It.

2) From a blog in which this guy talks about religion. Someone asked him why God wants us to worship Him.  He answered,  “Everyone likes being praised. It’s a huge ego bump, after all. But why does God need it? I mean, what kind of egomaniac needs millions of people all over the world praising his name? Isn’t that a little arrogant?

Short answer: Yes.”

He went on to make a case for God being egotistical.  Oh, and he thought he was being pro-God.

He should spare God the compliment.

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I went to church today, but didn’t have to

“On the first day of the week, let every one of you….” (I Corinthians 16:2)

A heavy snowfall had paralyzed the city. By church time only the janitor and the preacher had shown up.  As they stood there, trying to decide what to do, the pastor said, “People today just aren’t as dedicated as they should be.” The janitor said, “No sir, and we wouldn’t be here either if they didn’t pay us!”

Today, the second Sunday of December, I’m at the halfway point of five banquets in a six-day period.

Thursday night, it was the “President’s Christmas Dinner” at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.” I wasn’t the speaker or anything, but they set me up a table and I sketched a lot of people.  Then, the next night, after driving nearly 400 miles, I did the annual “pastors and wives Christmas banquet” for two associations around Minden, Louisiana where my buddy Randy Hales is the director of missions.  I sketched nonstop for a couple of hours and did my stories for 30 minutes and drew some more, then drove over two hours back to Vicksburg, Mississippi where I’d reserved a room.  Came home Saturday. Then, that night, I did the “Christmas family dinner” a few blocks from my house for Grace Community Bible Church, drawing everyone and sharing my stories.

I slept like a baby last night.

Two more to go.

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When the church apes the world

“Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:2)

In the recording room of a large radio station in Charlotte, North Carolina, I was cutting 30 second spots our church had purchased.  A committee of our sharpest young adults had put together a package of radio ads on several stations hoping to get our message out and make the community aware of First Baptist Church.

After our first cut, the young lady producing the spots said, “Uh, pastor.  I need you to hear something.”

She fiddled with a few dials and turned up the volume on the car commercial running on the air at that moment.  “That’s what the ads on this station sound like.”

The commercial was fast-paced and loud, with a drum hammering a heavy staccato beat in the background.

I said, “I’m well aware of what your station sounds like.”

She said, “Well, you will want your ad to fit in with that.”

I said, “No ma’am. That is precisely what I do not want.”

“I would like to stand out from all that.”

She agreed to do it my way–just my voice talking quietly, nothing in the background–for the first round of ads.

A month later, at the next recording session, she said, “You’re right. I was wrong. What you are doing is working very well.”

Judging by the response we were receiving from the community, she was right.

Sometimes, when I see churches falling all over themselves to look like the world and sound like the world in order to speak to the world, I shake my head.

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Before you worship, ask yourself this question

“Now, while the people were in a state of expectation….” (Luke 3:15)

To the Pharisees who joined the crowds emptying the cities and flocking to hear the rough preacher in the desert proclaim Heaven’s message, John the Baptist asked, “Who warned you vipers to flee from the wrath to come?” (Luke 3:7) 

What were they doing there, he wanted to know.

Long after John had been decapitated for his faithful proclamation of the Lord’s message, Jesus asked the crowds who had thought so much of his rough-hewn cousin:

–“When you went out into the wilderness to hear John, what were you looking for?” (Luke 7:24)

–“What did you go out to see?” (7:25)

–“But what did you go out to see?” (7:26)

Anyone see a trend here?

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