Not long after my recent book Why We Listen to Sermons (Calvin Press, 2019) was released, my colleague John Witvliet and I had a conversation about it at Calvin Seminary’s annual President’s Legacy Society luncheon. John noted that if he had to choose who the book’s main character or actor was, it would clearly be the person of the Holy Spirit. And indeed, that was exactly my intention.
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Years ago during Lent at my former congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I structured a series of Lenten sermons around Merold Westphal’s then-new book Suspicion & Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism (Fordham University Press, 1998). In the book, Westphal profiled three of the most prominent atheists in the modern era: Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche.
For about seven years in the 1960s, the Beatles recorded special Christmas songs and greetings for the members of its fan club (mailed to them on a 45 rpm—remember those?). One year the song was titled “Christmas Time (Is Here Again).” It has to count as one of the simplest of all Beatles songs as the five words of the title are sung over and over. And over. And over again.
The statistics tell it all. The population is getting older. The first of us born in the so-called post-World War II generation of “baby boomers” are now in our early 70s, and even the youngest of this group—of which I am one—are turning 55 in 2019. Small wonder that something like Social Security has become imperiled. When President Franklin D.
A while ago a friend of mine (who is not a preacher) made a good observation. She noted that when she began attending a certain congregation, she found the pastor’s sermons to be mostly just OK. There was nothing wrong with the sermons. They were solid, fairly interesting most of the time, and very biblical.
The Same Old Story
It always felt wrong, and I thought maybe it was just me. But then I heard similar musings from fellow pastors who also felt guilty about it. Easter, after all, is the liturgical high point in the Christian year. More so even than Christmas, Easter sees churches packed to overflowing. So why as a pastor did I sometimes see Easter Sunday coming down the pike and feel a sense of . . . well, not dread, but a certain heaviness—the kind of thing that could wring a sigh or two from me?
Recently I was interviewed for a podcast in connection with a blog I write for a couple of times each month. The interviewer asked the question, “What is the difference between a blog and a sermon?” It was a good question and not one I’d thought about much before. Whether what I came up with by way of an answer was very good or complete I don’t know.
In one of the congregations I served, a friend of mine went through the training to become a Stephen Minister. Stephen Ministers work alongside the church’s elders and pastors in providing pastoral care to members of the congregation. One week the training focused on how to handle mental health issues. The training was given by an expert from a local Christian mental health hospital, and among the topics covered that week were depression but also more severe chronic conditions including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
When I began to write this article, it had been only a few days since philosopher Alvin Plantinga formally received the 2017 Templeton Prize at a ceremony in Chicago. Through his teaching at Calvin College and then at the University of Notre Dame—and through a bevy of influential articles and books—Plantinga revived serious philosophical engagement with theological and religious topics.
Some of us know people who are highly enthusiastic, complimentary, and positive. These are not bad traits! But sometimes such people are so lavish with their praise about every sermon they hear, every restaurant meal they eat, every movie they see that eventually we come to wonder about their judgment and just how valuable getting a compliment from such a person really is. If you are on the receiving end of a “That was a great sermon, pastor!” comment at the church door, you want to believe it.
During three of my four years as a student at Calvin College I served on the Knollcrest Worship Service Committee. This was a group of about a dozen students who were advised by the two college chaplains. It was our job to plan and help lead the two worship services held every Sunday during the school year. We were also supervised by a consortium of local church councils that sent elder representatives to every service.
Growing up in the countryside five miles outside Ada, Michigan, Roman Catholics were largely unknown to me. When I was about ten, my parents sold off a small chunk of the farmland they had bought some years before, and the Smith family built a house half a mile up the road from us. They went to St. Robert Catholic Church.
As Reformed Worship enters its 30th year, it is natural to look back and wonder what has changed since this publication began. My colleague John Witvliet can testify to the explosion of work in the area of liturgics and worship. The serious study of worship has gone from a relatively rare enterprise a few decades ago to a growing academic phenomenon. In addition to Reformed Worship, worship planners and pastors now have access to a mind-boggling wealth of resources.
The weekend of September 14-16, 2001, I was slated to be in Chicago for a seminar. However, like most previously planned events that weekend, the seminar never happened. With the horror of 9/11 that week, the airlines were still grounded and most people’s schedules were in tatters.
If you peruse the most popular Christian book titles, or if you check out what pastors and church consultants are blogging about, or if you read the titles of plenary speeches and workshops at Christian conferences, then you will quickly discern one of the hottest current topics in Christian circles: leadership. Everyone wants to be a leader. Everyone wants to be an effective leader.
Recently I served as the chairperson for a search committee that was seeking to hire a new professor of missions and missiology at Calvin Seminary. That task meant that I had the chance to bring myself up to speed a bit on the current state of conversations about missions and where some of the primary foci are in the field of missiology.
Over the nearly sixteen years when I was preaching two new sermons every week, I dipped into the Revised Common Lectionary only sporadically. Typically I’d turn to Lectionary texts for Advent or maybe for Lent, especially if I had no fresh ideas for a sermon series. However, since coming to Calvin Seminary seven years ago, I use the Lectionary every week as the basis of the sermon-starter articles some colleagues and I have been posting on the Center for Excellence in Preaching website every Monday morning.
Note: This article is slightly adapted from its first printing in The Banner(June 2010). Used by permission.
If you’ve ever recited the Athanasian Creed in a worship service, please send me an email to tell me about it!
In truth, I’ve never heard this creed used in church, and it’s not difficult to see why. Even a quick glance shows you that in addition to being much longer than either the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed, this creed is also sufficiently repetitive as to get tedious.
- Worship Series from the Gospel of Mark
The Mysterious Kingdom
The kingdom of God is never quite what we expect. We see this in two rather surprising back-to-back parables in Mark 4.
- Worship Ideas for Lent from the Gospel of Mark
Every few years it happens, often around Easter. Questions about the life and ministry of Jesus are still so interesting to so many people that one, two, or even three of the major weekly newsmagazines in America will run cover stories about him. Few celebrities get their faces on the covers of such magazines all in the same week. Yet centuries after his death and resurrection, Jesus still generates a lot of press—not only for what he did or said but for the core question of who he is.
- Worship Ideas for the Gospel of Mark
Human nature is such that we prefer the sweet to the sour, the easy to the hard, the light rather than the darkness. But for the light to seem bright, we first need to spend time in darkness. Similarly, we need Advent to comprehend the gift of Christmas. This series allows us to dwell in Advent, to notice that we’re living in between the two advents, to dare to look at the world’s darkness in order to better see the brightness of Christ’s light.
If you are a preacher in a typical Reformed congregation, you know that on most Sundays the congregation expects the table to be bare even as they expect the pulpit to be filled. Many people who wouldn’t bat an eye at a service without either of the sacraments would find a service without a sermon vaguely scandalous.
Some years ago Bill Murray starred in a movie that riffed on Charles Dickens’ classic story A Christmas Carol . Murray played the Scrooge figure in the film: a hard-nosed television executive who disliked everything about Christmas except for the fact that his TV network could make a lot of money off the holidays.
Literary Companion to the Lectionary: Readings Throughout the Year by Mark Pryce. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002. xiii+143 pp. (paperback).
Literary Companion to the Festivals by Mark Pryce. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003. xvii+189 pp. (paperback). $11.90.
FIRST SUNDAY IN ADVENT
Service Plans and Sermon Sketches
for Advent and Christmas
It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas, all around the world." At some point during the upcoming holiday season we will almost certainly hear those familiar lyrics on the radio, on a TV special, or at the mall.
In his book Suspicion and Faith (Eerd-mans, 1993) philosopher Merold West-phal makes the provocative suggestion that preachers use Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche as the starting point for a series of Lenten reflections. Since these men were all profound atheists, Westphal's suggestion may at first seem merely absurd. But upon closer examination, it becomes apparent that the idea has merit.