Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Congregation I Do Not Want

Between the ministry I formerly served and current opportunities afforded me, I've done a fair (but not great) amount of "guest speaking." While nothing is as sweet as being able to preach to your own congregation, itinerate speaking does grow you and can be quite a challenge. You pray (and trust) that by being faithful to the Text, you will minister to the guest congregation you serve.

At times, it is a wonderful blessing. Sometimes you land at a place where the people's hearts are right with you, it almost feels like you are preaching to an extension of your own church body. Other times, (and I've had only a couple of these) what you are preaching is so different to what they are used to hearing, yet because they are His sheep they hear the Master's voice in the text, they respond. You can see this radical shift happening in the listening audience even as you preach!

But it's not always a happy experience. I've preached in churches before where the congregation was so hostile to the gospel that people crossed arms and scowled at me as I simply preached a text. I've been in other environments where I unknowingly said something contrary to the pastor's teaching and immediately saw the pastor and congregation take up a defensive posture. I've had hecklers before. I had my microphone shut off once. I've had people respond that a message was "nice, but a bit too Biblical for their taste." These situations serve to make you extra thankful for you congregation.

But in either environment, the personality of the regular preacher will be assumed into your message. If he preaches angry, comments you make will be assumed as harsh though that wasn't your intent. If he quotes other people a lot, original statements in your message will be assumed as quotations from others. If he uses humor a lot, comments you intend to be serious will be assumed as humorous.

In fact, the following link is a haunting example. If you click the audio link (only need to hear the first 5 minutes) in Taylor's article, you will hear Piper laying his heart out to the American Association of Christian Counselors. The response he gets: laughter. Over and over again. He even calls them out for this and it seems self defeating. The more he tells them he can't understand why they are laughing, the more people continue to laugh.

Now, if any audience has been trained to be empathetic and gracious, you would expect it to be the AACC. I don't believe this is a reflection of their insensitivity to Piper or an apathy toward sin. Any counselor who would laugh at a counselee who poured out his heart in a session is evil and should be removed from their position. I simply doubt any of them would respond this way in their professional setting. But get them to a conference, put a guy on the stage, have him start working through his introduction and what will they expect: humor. Like Pavlov's dog, they become trained to wait for the joke.

When the jokes weren't there, the anticipation for them was so great, the audience began to see humor in places it was not intended. That's not a reflection on John Piper, that's a reflection on the previous conference experiences of the audience.

The question then becomes, "What does my congregation anticipate week in and week out? What expectation would be placed on a guest speaker at our church? (Those expectations are not all bad. I remember the week we had a guest speaker and several people in the congregation said something to the effect, "That was a nice message, but I like how our guys talk more about Jesus.")

Taylor ends his article:

Apparently the conditioning of that audience to think everything is funny took no more than a couple of days.

How deep do you think that conditioning would be for a church who sat under a funny-man pastor every Sunday for fifteen years?
May the greatest expectation be to preach Christ, and Him crucified!


April said...

I listened to a few minutes of John Piper’s recording. I can’t believe how rude an audience can be. It did not at all sound funny to me. I don’t know how John could go on after all that. I think I would have given up after the first couple of laughs. Thank goodness I don’t have to do speeches!

Here are my answers to your questions: Hope they are helpful!

What does my congregation anticipate week in and week out?
•Hear the gospel
•Learn more about the Bible
•Having the text explained more clearly
•Hearing a possible different point of view on what I thought the text means
•Hearing how sin relates to everyday life. Sometimes I don’t realize that it is sin until I hear it from you or the speaker.

What expectation would be placed on a guest speaker at our church?
•The same as above

I do enjoy the occasional humor you put into your sermons. I don’t think you go overboard with it, if that is what you are worried about. I always have a better understanding of the text at the end of service, and I leave there with a greater love for Christ and the Word. I am so thankful that God led me to Grace!


danny2 said...

very kind words, april. thank you!

His grace truly is amazing!

Darby Livingston said...

Great post, Danny

Darby Livingston said...

I would like to point out though, that the AACC issue isn't so discussed and debated because they laughed, but because they laughed at, God forbid, John Piper. Everyone knows Piper is seriously, seriously, seriously happy and happily serious and so how dare one take him frivolously.

If what he said wasn't funny, a crowd that size wouldn't spontaneously erupt in laughter at the same time. It's not like it was a laughing machine or those lights that say "laugh now." So I don't think it was anticipation. Piper's delivery and sense of irony is very much like many straight-faced comedians. People respond accordingly. I don't really think it has anything to do with their holiness or lack thereof.

danny2 said...

I don't really think it has anything to do with their holiness or lack thereof.

amen and amen. i hope i've made that point sufficiently. (and i think gilbert and taylor do as well, i their posts.) it makes no difference to me that this was the aacc (i know nothing about them) or if it would have been T4G or nanc or anything else.

and i'm not saying that it is wrong for most conference speakers to begin with humor. it is a quick way to connect with the audience...and such a connection is probably necessary since these are not people you've been preaching to over years. however, i think it just shows how any expectations can creep in "subconciously" and affect how we read our circumstances.

whether it's humor, or a prophecy guy always turning the text into an end times discussion, or a bitter calvinist turning every text into "this is why the other guys are wrong," a congregation will develop expectations...and probably won't even realize they are doing it.

my our sheep expect to hear about the Chief Shepherd, from the Word of the Shepherd!

Darby Livingston said...

Sorry Danny. I wasn't refuting anything you wrote. I agree with the point of your post. I was just giving a little side point. And I sat at a CCEF conference where Piper spoke similarly and even they laughed at things he said that he probably meant seriously.