Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Kiwi made preaching: stories can be a sermon’s best friend

There’s a new blog, focused on preaching, which has been quietly growing over the last months, steadily adding some great content. It’s focused on preaching;

  • a team of 25 contributors posting short weekly articles
  • a range of resources
  • an ‘images that speak’ feature with photos that speak

Yep, it’s “Kiwi-made”, but perhaps even little Kiwi’s might have something to contribute to discussion around preaching today. I’m one of the weekly contributors and my recent contribution: Stories can be a sermon’s best friend has just gone up. So click on over, or simply click here to read what I wrote: (more…)

Posted by steve at 08:15 AM

Sunday, December 13, 2009

growing congregational capacity to engage the Bible

For those wrestling with how to deepen congregational capacity around the Bible, and who learn from others adventures, here’s what I did this morning. The Bible text was available in three formats:
– a postcard sized card, professionally printed (one of series of four “blessings”)
– as a powerpoint slide
– as a 10 metre high banner in the church (one of a set of four).

Four times during the sermon I invited a minute’s silence. Each time, I invited the congregation to read the text for themselves (whether by postcard, banner or powerpoint) and engage a different set of questions:

  • first – What word or phrase strikes us? What questions does it raise?
  • second – What life experiences does it connect with?
  • third – How does this part fit with the rest of the Bible book?
  • fourth – What other Bible verses, or Bible stories, does this bring to mind?

When appropriate (all except third time) I asked for congregational feedback, and then shared some our my thoughts, emerging from my research, reading, commentary digging during the week. I pointed out at the end that this is a model for how any of us can read the Bible – it honours the text, our life experience, literary genre and the flow of God’s big story.

I’ve blogged before (here, here, here and here) about the weakness of “one voice is the expert” and of “sharing as pooling of ignorance.” It seems to me that approaches as detailed above honour both the reservoir of knowledge that exists about original context, the diversity of life experience we all bring, the wisdom of the community and the need for all of us, publicly and privately, to be doing the hard yards of listening to God around Scripture.

Specifically what I did offered a
a) guided space for people to engage Bible for themselves
b) conversational interaction, hearing each other in community
c) shared input, from the commentaries, my life, and the history of church
d) a clear process which can then be taken and applied in other contexts.

It’s still a little bit head-based for my liking. But this is 10:30 am. After six years at Opawa, we have a variety of congregations that offer a huge range of ways to connect with God. You can art at Sidedoor, smell and feel at Soak, discuss at espresso, hymn sing, culturally connect at Grow. Bottom-line, some people still find it most helpful to sit and think with their heads. So we need “sitting and thinking” places, like 10:30 Sunday morning!

Posted by steve at 04:32 PM

Thursday, December 10, 2009

bono: third way’s icon of the month

I’ve been beating my head for the last few weeks around a couple of sentences in a chapter I’m writing: struggling to know how to express what I consider messianic pretentiousness in Bono’s claim in this Youtube video that songs can change the world.

So it was a relief to find Bono’s messianic pretentiousness captured by no less a luminary than Bruce Springsteen, who

observed, when inducting U2 into the rock and roll hall of fame that ‘every good … front man knows that before James Brown there was Jesus’. And Bono, as the Boss suggests, seems to know this better than most.

A quote as part of the December edition of Third way magazine, who have named Bono as their icon of the month. (They do an icon a month and it’s a fantastic resource for cultural studies, which I drew on for my Gospel in post-Christian class earlier this year with every student reflecting on the use and abuses of such things as – Nike, football pitch, play station, widescreen TV – in our world today.)

Which needs to be placed alongside John Drane’s incisive little book Celebrity Culture. John argues that today’s celebrity culture offers a fantastic opportunity for the gospel. Specifically

  • that our fascination with celebrities reminds us that for many humans, truth is embodied and experienced as relational and personal
  • that we no longer expect our celebrities to be completely perfect. Indeed, that their pain as they struggle to be a person of value is good news, for it portrays a form of honest discipleship that is deeply Biblical.
  • the contemporary human fascination with the warts and all of life, including the spiritual search, asks questions about how authentically open are most Christians in their spiritual search

And for a wonderful exposition of this theology of “celebrity culture”, see the Drane’s post on the death of celebrity Jane Goodie.

So thanks Bono, for even if your songs can’t change a world, nevertheless, in your stubbled way, you help me stumble toward my being formed in the way of Christ.

Posted by steve at 04:36 PM

Monday, November 16, 2009

if you need me to fed you

“how do we get fed? – You pick up a spoon! What are you… a baby?!” Great quote from Andrew Hamilton.

I had not come across this “need to feed” until I came to Opawa, when after a few months, I was told my preaching was not feeding some people.

Which on reflection, really got me scratching my head. It suddenly occurred to me that the people needing feeding had been around the church a long time. Some had even got to Bible Colleges. Presumably they’d heard a lot of sermons. And been to a lot of weekly Bible study home groups. Presumably matured.

If they needed feeding, then what did that say about all preaching, not only my preaching. And what did that say about their own patterns of feeding, daily?

Which raises again the perennial question – what is the point of preaching? And more pointedly, what is the point of preaching “in such a time as this”? To feed? To inspire? To open windows?

And leads nicely into this blog series by Scot McKnight, on preaching underpinned by a thoughtful, integrated educational approach. Scot’s approach intuitively rings some bells for me.

A very early influence on my preaching was a communication seminar I attended, led by an adult educator. Who asked a whole lot of educational questions about how people are formed. And then applied them to preaching.

So I like Scot McKnight’s instincts – refusing to throw out the baby with the bathwater by scorning preaching. But equally, refusing to somehow treat preaching as sacrosant, above educational insights. In so doing, he opens the door for us to begin to take seriously how all of our church life can be forming people – worship, small groups, billboards, websites, video …

Posted by steve at 09:07 PM

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Sharing faith across cultures

A reality of our times is that we live in a pluralistic world. This has been incredibly important in sharpening how we think about other faiths. We live between two (unhelpful IMHO) poles: silence, in which a person is too scared to share the sacred story of God’s work in their lives and hostility, in which the way a person shares is rude, intolerant and antagonistic.

These poles apply to all faiths. I sat in a taxi a few weeks ago in Australia. When I mentioned I was a church minister, for the next 40 minutes the taxi driver lectured me on his faith. He was struggling with the two poles, not wanting to be silent, but in his monologue, ending up rude and intolerant.

Richard Sudworth is a CMS missionary, working in a Muslim majority part of the (English) city of Birmingham. He is part of a Christian-Muslim Forum launched their “10 Commandments of Mission”, offered as a conversation starter in an attempt to establishing honest and workable relations between faiths that allows for freedom of conscience.

Here are their 10 commandments of Mission.

1. We bear witness to, and proclaim our faith not only through words but through our attitudes, actions and lifestyles.
2. We cannot convert people, only God can do that. In our language and methods we should recognise that people’s choice of faith is primarily a matter between themselves and God.
3. Sharing our faith should never be coercive; this is especially important when working with children, young people and vulnerable adults. Everyone should have the choice to accept or reject the message we proclaim and we will accept people’s choices without resentment.
4. Whilst we might care for people in need or who are facing personal crises, we should never manipulate these situations in order to gain a convert.
5. An invitation to convert should never be linked with financial, material or other inducements. It should be a decision of the heart and mind alone.
6. We will speak of our faith without demeaning or ridiculing the faiths of others.
7. We will speak clearly and honestly about our faith, even when that is uncomfortable or controversial.
8. We will be honest about our motivations for activities and we will inform people when events will include the sharing of faith.
9. Whilst recognising that either community will naturally rejoice with and support those who have chosen to join them, we will be sensitive to the loss that others may feel.
10. Whilst we may feel hurt when someone we know and love chooses to leave our faith, we will respect their decision and will not force them to stay or harass them afterwards

Now, I want to place this alongside Luke 10:1-12. Jesus sends disciples out in mission. They are not to be quiet. Rather they enter the culture with the instruction to speak “peace.” This fits with (1) and (7). It also is an endorsement of (8), in that it names faith clearly.

If peace is returned, then the disciples are to dwell at table, eating and drinking what is placed before them. This seems to me to fit with (4) and (5). The disciple is placed as a receiver of hospitality, depend on the culture. As such, they must be willing to do (6), to find ways to name the Kingdom in ways congruent with table fellowship. It also allows due care (9), to occur in a natural and relational way.

If our message is rejected, the disciples are to leave. Mission is not coercive and does not overstay it’s welcome. It retreats when it is not wanted. Reading Luke 10:12 can sound judgemental, but when placed alongside Luke 9:51-56, it suggests a willingness to let go in gracious humility. This fits with (3). It is also essential to (10).

Essential to Luke 10:1-12 is the fact that the disciples are sent ahead of Jesus, yet reliant on the work of the Spirit in order for hospitality to be enacted. This fits with (2).

Or, in the words of An Introduction to the Study of Luke-Acts

“From this description of mission ‘strategy’ we could not possibly draw the notion of domination in any way.” (89) and “It is a mystery how this sense of the text could have escaped colonialist-minded missionaries. The idea of imposing a Christian culture on a receiving culture is foreign to this text.” (90)

People used to being in control, at the centre of a culture and a conversation (whether Christian or Muslim) will not find this easy. However, our Biblical story, the narrative of Luke 10:1-12, offers us resources. So “Lukan/Biblical” applause to Richard Sudworth and the Christian-Muslim forum for finding a creative way beyond those two poles of silence and hostility.

Posted by steve at 07:49 AM

Saturday, November 07, 2009

reading our R-rated Bible

The Bible has some appalling moments: R-rated stories of violence and violation. In preparing for worship for this Sunday, the Lectionary reading suggested is Isaiah 24. To use that text then demands almost a sermon in explanation. However doing a sermon (thus making 2 for the service) was not the task given to me as curator of worship this Sunday. Instead, I chose use the Psalm of the day as the Lectionary reading. And felt guilty all week. Then read this from Maggi Dawn.

Pretty often I edit our lectionary very liberally on the basis that the unthinkable, unimaginable horror stories in scripture should only be read in services where there is an adequate space to address them, and when it’s a read-sing-pray service, the readings have to be selected appropriately. That’s not at all the same thing as editing out the dodgy bits – it’s about choosing when and where they are read, with the possibility of addressing the strange and difficult readings.

So that’s two options for dealing with the R-rated:
1. edit when there’s little time
2. make time to deal with the tough texts. Like I hope we at Opawa have tried to do with our Bible days this year. As we start a new Bible book, we offer a 2 hour Saturday seminar on tools for reading that book and how to deal with the tough texts. The feedback has been very positive over the year and we’ll continue the pattern in 2010.

Maggi has a great 3rd suggestion, changing the congregational response. Rather than “Thanks be to God”, she suggests: “This is an outrageous story to our ears – what does the ancient text have to tell us about what they thought about God then, what we think now, why we still read it at all?” I like. It allows us to be honest. It names the two horizons – that ancient world and our world. It affirms that this text is important enough to keep reading and in a way that invites curiousity and question, not outright rejection.

So that’s 4 options:
1. Steve Taylor’s choose the easier reading
2. Maggi Dawn’s keep but edit the hard bits
3. Opawa’s offer Bible days
4. Maggi Dawn’s change the congregational response.

What do other reader of the Bible text do when they hit the R-rated bits?

Posted by steve at 11:10 AM

Monday, November 02, 2009

turning points: martin luther, reformed? or reforming

The second video in the Turning points in Christian history sermon series is now available online. (The first in the Turning points series – on monasticism, mission and discipleship is here).

The aim of the Turning points series is simply to ask what we can learn from what God was up to in history. I’ve been surprised and encouraged by the feedback, folk at Opawa requesting sermons, a whole different set of people engaging with my sermons. I think there’s something about it being a bit different, in thinking and approach, that is appealing.

In summary the sermon outline is as follows:
1. Introduction to Martin Luther
2. Impact of reformation
-positive attitude to world
– vocation for all
– emergence of sciences
3. Reformation as reformed? Or reforming?
4. Application – a challenge: What would Luther bang on our church today? With 6 suggested theses.

For those who want to read further, these are the books I found most helpful:
Reformation Thought: An Introduction
Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity
Brazos Introduction to Christian Spirituality, The
Reform and Conflict: From the Medieval World to the Wars of Religion, (Baker History of the Church)

Posted by steve at 01:32 PM

Friday, October 23, 2009

turning points: key moments in Christian history

  • Benedict and Monasteries, Sunday 10:30 am, October 25
  • Luther and Reformation, Sunday 10:30 am, November 1
  • John Smith and Baptists, Sunday 10:30 am, November 8, complete with Anabaptist communion
  • Wesley and faith for all of life, Sunday 10:30 am, November 15

(All at Opawa Baptist, cnr Hastings St East and Wilsons Road). The intention is that Opawa catches a bigger picture of God in history. For a church in transition, knowing our back story helps shape our future. The hope is that I can be clear enough and sharp enough to relate history to life today.

Each Sunday will feature a song, a “saint”, some history and some contemporary application. This Sunday, Benedict and Monasteries, will include
– the facebook monks quiz
– honouring of three monks – Anthony, Benedict and Clare
– an analysis of the impact of the monastic movement on Christianity.
– finally, I want to reflect on what we can learn from the monastic movement for Christian life today. This will include how we imagine church, how we live our lives 24/7 and the shape of our Christian growth.

(The title of the series is borrowed from Mark Noll’s fabulous Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity.) Other books I’ve been reading have included:
Radical Hospitality: Benedict’s Way Of Love
The Rule of Benedict for Beginners: Spirituality for Daily Life
A Public Faith: From Constantine to the Medieval World, AD 312-600
Emerging Downunder
New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church
St Benedict for Today.

All in all, it’s been a rich week of sermon reflection.

Posted by steve at 02:06 PM

Thursday, October 01, 2009

the evolving performance of Bullet the Blue Sky: U2 paper to speak

Just finalised my paper for the U2 conference. Huge relief to have it done, leaving the flight to work on the powerpoint. Just for fun, here is one of the sections. It is the 6th section, of 7, titled:

Installation: an art by any other name

“it was the total experience of a U2 set that counted.” (U2: The Early Days).

Having used narrative mapping to analyse key features of the evolving live performance of (Bullet the Blue sky) BBS, one way to consider the data is through the lens of installation art.

A key element in installation art is what De Oliveria calls the “unexpected awakenings of communal memory.” (Installation Art in the New Millennium: The Empire of the Senses) With specific reference to BBS, U2 are employing samples – the blindfold (Vertigo), the fighter planes (Vertigo), the lyrics from When Jonny Comes Marching home (Vertigo) or the chant from Irish singer, Sinead O’Connor (Go Home), the sampling of their own songs (Vertigo) – the collage-like re-appropriating of already existing elements in the pursuit of creativity – to awaken communal memory. They are engaging a shared “desire for immersion in a communal activity with repetitive conditions.” (Installation Art in the New Millennium)

Installation Art in the New Millennium et al describe the “strategies of de-familiarization”, the deliberate attempt in installations to create another world. With specific reference to U2, lighting director Bruce Ramos, describes his work as shifting people from their head to their bodies: “I take them out of their heads and into their bodies and hold them there for their concert.”

This is not escapism. Rather it can be framed as what Installation Art in the New Millennium et al name as a key dynamic in club culture – an experiential space that is introspective, immersive and social; a “viewing of the self contemplating the external world.” This surely is what is happening as communal memory is awakened in the evolving performances of BBS: the self can lament at the external world (Paris), the self can confess (Go home) and the self can both confess and petition (Vertigo).

An outcome is that in a culture which “mourns the loss of public space” a concert is one of few “public space experience” left in our culture. (Installation Art in the New Millennium)

What seems to be happening is a sort of humanisation. Through the evolving live performance of BBS, war is no longer a disembodied experience in El Salvador or Iraq. It is what happens to “those brave men and women of United States,” the “sister or a brother overseas and they’re in danger or whatever.”

Thus my argument is that the lens of installation art enables us to appreciate the evolving live concert performances of BBS. A song grounded in a specific context, through the practice of installation art and the technique of sampling, becomes a facilitator of communal awakening.

Select bibliography:
U2 by U2
U2 Show: The Art of Touring
Joshua Tree (Remastered / Expanded) (Super Deluxe Edition) (2CD/DVD)
U2: An Irish Phenomenon
Bono on Bono

Posted by steve at 08:06 PM

Thursday, September 10, 2009

it’s work. honest! U2

So today is a writing and research day and you would have seen me at the library, checking out the U2 digitally remastered The Joshua Tree. It’s work.


You see the boxed set includes DVD includes concert footage, Paris, 1987. The performance includes Bullet the Blue Sky. Now, fast forward years 17 years, to 2004, and the Vertigo DVD. The concert includes a performance of Bullet the Blue Sky. Same song. But 2004 is a radically different context than 1987. As Bono notes, a song can change the world. But what happens when a world changes around a song? How might the “ancient text” sound in a culture of change?

Now address the question by using a method called narrative mapping. Look not just at the narrative of the lyrics. Look also at the narratives of sound, of lighting, of visuals, of theatrical performance. Any changes? How has the performance evolved? What might we learn – about culture, about context, about communication?

Such are the questions I’m researching. It’s work.


All preparation for my paper for the U2 Academic Conference, initially planned for New York in May,


then postponed, now happening in Durham in October. I’m speaking alongside Beth Maynard, looking forward to her paper and seeing face to face a cyberfriend, looking forward to talking U2, feedback and hype, over a weekend. Of work. Honest!

Posted by steve at 12:36 PM

Sunday, September 06, 2009

soak and lectio divina for those wanting to hear God in sickness

soak400.jpg Soak is a monthly (first Sunday) service we run at Opawa. It’s like nothing I’ve ever been involved with before: sung worship, a great space, lectio divina, and then various stations, with people leaving when they feel they’ve finished soaking.

So tonight the theme was Hearing God in sickness. One of the stations was a wheelchair, on which people could sit and pray for the sick they knew. Another offered healing prayer. Other’s offered prayers, poetic and tactile, for those hearing difficult news.

It just felt such a useful pastoral thing to be part of; offering Christian resources – a wide range of Christian resources – for those everyday realities.

For those interested, here’s the lectio divina I wrote. It’s based on a phrase from Ben Harper album, “Two hands of prayer”, which seemed to me the best way to understand Mark 9:24I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!..” Which linked in my head with John 20:27 “Put your finger here; see my hands.” It’s not exegeticaly logical or coherent. But that’s the beauty of lectio divina: it expects God’s inspiration simply because the Spirit is alive and well both in relation to Biblical text and in relation to human imagination. We offer the Bible in many, many ways at Opawa, and the lectio approach is just one of the man.


Posted by steve at 10:35 PM

Monday, August 03, 2009

not noticed by Jesus

Every now and again a Bible lectionary reading jumps out at me.

Take the story of Peter and John healing the lame man in Acts. So 3:2 “Now a man who was lame from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts” jumped out.

Now Jesus was a regular temple goer. So he must have walked past this man lots of time. And the man remains unhealed. It’s not until Peter and John walk past, post-Pentecost, that something happens.

They do what Jesus never did, heal this man. Was Jesus not aware? I doubt it. Instead we have the mystery of God: a saviour who does not heal everyone and followers of the Saviour prepared to do what the Saviour never did.

Posted by steve at 05:26 PM

Thursday, July 09, 2009

a visual bible: updated

use of Wordle to provide a visual on the Bible. This is the Biblical text for Sunday morning. (Hat tip).

Wordle: series mark

And really easy to slap this up when a lectionary text is being read, so that visual learners have something to look at. Updated: So Sundays’ lectionary reading looks like this:
Wordle: lectionary readings 1 tim

Posted by steve at 04:48 PM

Saturday, July 04, 2009

application block/bung: updated

Text for Sunday: Jesus said, “When you’re celebrating a wedding, you don’t skimp on the cake and wine. You feast. Later you may need to pull in your belt, but not now. As long as the bride and groom are with you, you have a good time. No one throws cold water on a friendly bonfire. This is Kingdom Come!” He went on, “No one cuts up a fine silk scarf to patch old work clothes; you want fabrics that match. And you don’t put your wine in cracked bottles.” Mark 2:19-22

So I’ve got the introduction and backstory: conflict in Mark 2, the wedding image – in the Old Testament, in Jewish culture, in Revelation. God as party God, Christian discipleship as “friends of bridegroom”: a fabulous picture.

But I’m blocked/bunged up with verse 21-22 – the wineskins part. If I was all emergent/esque it would be easy – I’d just trash talk the old. You know the drill: old, wrinkly, leather past it’s due by date. New wine is coming, all youthful and goateed and hip and fine silk.

But is that really what Jesus would be wanting to say at Opawa on Sunday morning: a 98 year old church, visitors for a baby dedication of a child from a historic and faithful family, to a congregation that has given space for new wineskins of Grow and Side Door and espresso and the gathering to develop. What is the application?

I need to dash to talk to 90 Salvation Army community and church youth workers, so thoughts please while I’m gone ….

Updated: Thanks to those who commented and emailed. You were each helpful and encouraging. Here’s how I finished: (more…)

Posted by steve at 01:18 PM