Bible reading in Church master class: delivery of narratives

Presumptions

I’m presuming you are a mature Christian and have some experience and confidence reading in church. I’m also presuming you know how to prepare a Bible text for public reading. That is, you have worked through the text and understand its overall meaning and how each sentence contributes to this meaning, and you have also clarified pronunciations of odd names, and have made good sense of any long sentences. This is no small work in and of itself, however, once you have done all this, it’s time to work on your delivery. 

Not too monochrome, but not too colourful

What we are aiming for in the delivery is to 1) let the text shine (not the reader) 2) help the congregation to get caught up in the text. Unfortunately these immediately feel at odds with each other. In wanting the text to shine, readers can often read in monochrome, and every aspect of the passage gets the same flat tone. You don’t notice the reader (which is good) but there is little drama or interest in the text itself… in other words it’s boring. No one is getting caught up in anything. On the other end, some readers put too much colour into the text. Parts of scripture that were obviously intended as background information become pensive, but pointless explorations - the attention of the congregation gets drawn unnecessarily to some aspect of the text.  Or some word or phrase gets emphasised to the point that the congregation stops listening to the text and instead notices that the reader thinks that this particular aspect of the text is important.

I want to suggest a way forward that navigates between these two. The following applies particularly to narratives. 

Narrator voice vs character voice(s)

In your delivery, it is particularly important to distinguish between quotations from characters within the text and narration of background material. And by distinguish between them, I mean being able to flip effortlessly from one to the other. And by distinguish between them, I also mean that everything except what is in quotations marks and attributed to direct speech from a character is background material.

The narrator voice is the grounding of any narrative text and should be the default of the reader. Getting the voice right is critical. The narrator voice should be fundamentally neutral. It is low and slow paced but normal sounding, and importantly, colours the text with pauses and slight shifts rather than stress and tone. The narrator does not get over-excited, but remains controlled and deliberate at all times. The narrator is a master of the silence between words and phrases, and consciously manages the congregation’s attention by giving or limiting processing time - the longer the pause afterwards, the stronger the content is highlighted by the narrator. 

Choose a voice for each character, but *keep it subtle*

Character quotations is your straight, run-of-the-mill acting / voice characterisation. The key to letting the text shine without being distracting is keeping the characterisation complex and the delivery a little understated. I know that we clarified at the beginning of this post that it was presumed that the passage was already prepared and the meaning understood. Well, this next step might change things. We need to go through the text again carefully and try to understand the character and their motivations to the point where we can choose an appropriately matching tone and emphasis to give to the reading. As a side note, in keeping with our desire not to claim the limelight from the text itself  its vital that our characterisations of the Biblical characters are subtle and consistent. If we add just a little bit of gravel for one character, a slightly higher pitch for someone else, falling intonation at the end of sentences for a dominant/alpha/confident character; rising intonation for  - it doesn’t have to be more than this, nor should it be. Moreover if you give your listeners just a hint, they will do the rest. To them it won’t be just your reading, they will think you have turned into a whole host of characters even though you aren’t doing much different for each voice. Even more than that, if you do this with a little subtlety, they won’t even notice that you are doing it.

Think through each character’s motives at each point

With that said, a good reader will try to make every text a tragedy - if the underlying motives of each character are credible (however mislaid in some cases), then both the reader and the listener will feel a sense of sympathy towards them. Characters are not written off simply as sinners, and remain remote (and irrelevant). Instead so-called evil characters are shown as characters with tragically mislaid desires and motives, all the more real and relevant to us who often have similar motives from time to time. This deeper understanding of the biblical characters leads to deeper and richer interpretations. The result is that the Bible readings provide a strong catalyst for growth in and of themselves outside of the sermon. 

Conclusion

Reading the text in this way does help the listener prioritise the text over the reader and yet it still keeps the text exciting and gives the strongest likelihood that listeners will get carried away with the story. Reading the text this way is also quite difficult to do well and requires strong voice control and restraint. 

An exercise for those interested

I considered recording and including an audio file of myself reading a Bible text, however those who are interested and/or passionate about this will happily spend time working it out on their own or, ideally, with others. 
As an exercise, try reading John 18-19. As a passage it’s very important and it has many dramatic features to test your skills:

  • lots of flipping between narrative and character
  • many different characters including individuals (Jesus, Pilate, guards, etc.,) and groups (lynchmob in Gethsemane, crowds at the palace, Chief priests). This means the reader has to choose ‘voices’ for each character and come up with a voice to imply groupspeak. Currently my preferred group voice is slow and a little lower pitch hinting at unison in a primary-school-class-greeting kind of drone “Goood mor-ning Mi-sus Bun-ting”. A similar speed and articulation (with less drone & more demand) can be used in the group quote in John 19:6 “Cru-ci-fy! Cru-ci-fy!”.
  • dozens and dozens of portrayal choices: for example how does Pilate deliver his famous “what is truth?” line in John 18:38. Is he dismissive of Jesus, or is he curious? Or is this just an annoying piece of philosophy distracting him from getting on with business? You are the reader. You get to choose. Any of these will work and if done well, the congregation will stop listening to your voice. Instead they will hear Pilate himself, and they will listen with sympathy and dread as he delivers his line to Jesus Christ Almighty and teeters on the precipice between salvation and condemnation.

Malachi 1:6-2:9 - my sermon notes.

About a month ago I somehow made contact with a Syrian Kurd fighting ISIL in the small (now famous) border town of Kobani. He later moved to Mt Sinjar/Shengal. This is a slightly edited version of my sermon from yesterday where I tell the story of how that connection ended.

_________________

I had a big week this week. 

You know how I’ve been in contact with a Kurdish fighter against ISIS. I mentioned him a couple of weeks ago. We have a nice rapport together and he has been very kind in answering some of my questions.

This week he tweeted his final tweets. On Tues he wrote that IS militants were doing a massive push, and reminded us all to pray for Yazidis. There was silence from his account for two days. I sent him a few private messages. 'are you ok, bro?' 'What’s happening?' 

Suddenly a new voice comes on. ‘Hevallo, me, Simo, Brother Tigrisi is seriously injured. pray for him. He kill 7 daesh (Arabic for ISIS). Allah save.’

These must have been fighters on the mountain with him. ‘No bother Tigrisi.’

I posted this online and let a few people know. 'Look he’s been seriously injured'. I’m quite upset, but I figure that this is a worthy story to get out there. 

'What are his injuries?' I ask. 

‘He lost much blood and left hand.’

His left hand?! How crushing, but this is even more of a powerful story. Here's a man who literally gives his left hand to save the Yazidis! What a sacrifice!

A few other people are asking questions, I pass on the news. 

In any case, I’m becoming a contact person. 

And then he died. 

Whoever was with him posted “brother tigrisi is dead” 

“we are too fucking late. he is dead. I need a break. Done.” said one of the people I was talking to.

I figured that his young guy has died under my watch. I should take some responsibility in getting his story out. 

And so that’s what I did. 

I posted a few times about what he achieved - that he killed 86 IS and that people should spread the news.

They did.

Meanwhile, whoever was with him started switched his page into a private memorial page. I’m not sure why, maybe it was a respect thing.

But I thought that “No. this man’s life will not be forgotten.” and I chose some really great excerpts from my conversations together. Look at what he was like, he was a true hero. I pushed it. As is right. As I should: his death brings attention to Mt Sinjar. 

The following tweets are screenshots from private dialogue between us a couple of weeks before. My tweet comments are in the captions below. 

Last line: *check*

Last line: *check*

These #TwitterKurds can be kinda tough. 

These #TwitterKurds can be kinda tough. 

 

And you know what happened?

My account went nuts. Seriously. Ping. Ping. Ping. My phone is going CRAZY! “Oh man, that’s so sad.” “Thanks for letting us know.” People are asking for his name, and I’m trying to help. All these people from all over the world are trying to help me find out his name. 

The story is heading out. This guy is getting the recognition he deserves, and I am the one getting it out there.  

@Ezidipress is the main Yazidi advocacy account with several thousand followers and she contacts me and tells me that they translated my conversations into German. There is a few Spanish translations aswell. People are making music video tributes with mashed up quotes, emotive music and pictures of fields. 

Eventually I get overwhelmed by the kindness of people and the sadness of loss and my own tiredness and sense of responsibility. I find myself weeping and cursing, alone on my computer at 2am. “I don’t want to do this. I didn't even want to do social media at all.”

All the next day, my phone is pinging every 10 mins. Occasionally I press a button (retweet) to signal my approval. It’s good, people are spreading the message. Tigrisi and Mt Sinjar are getting the attention they deserve. 

But then...

The next evening a kurdish activist (@r3sho) who I have followed for a few months starts ranting against the whole campaign.

“Whoever started this fucking Tigrisi Witness attention whoring should be tied up and beaten.”

me: er, what?

@r3sho keeps going for 11 tweets about how unlikely it is, and how much damage it is doing to genuine Kurdish activism. How there are records of martyrs that are fastidiously kept. He is angry at the abuse of sincere martyrdom, that this is a mockery of such a high sacrifice.  

[read these from the bottom up]

[read these from the bottom up]

This dude starts talking to me, personally, mostly because I am the one behind all the pushing. Despite his frustration with the campaign, he is kind to me. 

He persuades me that it’s fake. 
Bits and pieces that probably shouldn't have added up at the time, started crumbling away. I had just been filling in the gaps and compensating out of pity…. it all started to come crashing down. It was fake. The death was a fake. He didn’t kill any ISIS. My opinion is that he was a well-meaning thoughtful kurdish young man, who got carried away when he was being treated like a soldier. 

So I deletE everything. I contact people who contacted me, and let them know. I pushed it out there, and almost as suddenly I am shutting it down, FAST.

There is one more retweet after this then the whole movement stops. 

And now I'm emotionally exhausted and I need to have a sermon to preach in 24 hours.

This story is all I have. 

Tigrisi Witness claimed to be a protector of the poor and vulnerable. He claimed to have offered the ultimate sacrifice. And he would have gotten away with it. But there was a true and genuine sacrifice that it was imitating. And his wasn’t good enough. It didn’t compare. In fact it actually *harmed* the very cause that it was seeking to support. 

The priests and people were going through the motions. People were bringing offerings to the priests, and the priests were approving of them. It’s just that they were poor quality. They seemed like good sacrifices, but they were not. They were not good enough. 

Not good enough for God

Now can we set aside something for the moment. 

Set aside the condemnation in this verse: [slide]

Lev. 22:21 When anyone brings from the herd or flock a fellowship offering to the LORD to fulfill a special vow or as a freewill offering, it must be without defect or blemish to be acceptable. 

And note what I have underlined. If you want to offer something to God out of love for him, make sure it is perfect. 

Everyone benefits when you offer imperfect animals. 
- The flock benefits - impure get culled, pure are left
- The priests benefit - they get plenty more to eat
- The sacrificers benefit - the unblemished flock is more expensive

But God doesn’t benefit. 
God feels like he is treated like an unlikable being. 

“Mal. 1:8 When you bring blind animals for sacrifice, is that not wrong? When you sacrifice crippled or diseased animals, is that not wrong? Try offering them to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you?” says the LORD Almighty.”

God resents them. 

Mal 1:13 And you say, ‘What a burden!’ and you sniff at it contemptuously,” says the LORD Almighty.
     “When you bring injured, crippled or diseased animals and offer them as sacrifices, should I accept them from your hands?” says the LORD.  14 “Cursed is the cheat who has an acceptable male in his flock and vows to give it, but then sacrifices a blemished animal to the Lord. For I am a great king,” says the LORD Almighty, “and my name is to be feared among the nations. 

You know when I was campaigning to honour this soldier, everyone felt good. I felt like I was doing the right thing, the people promoting the message felt like they were doing the right thing. TigrisiWitness wherever he was, probably thought it was good raising awareness for Sinjar. 

But the message of Kurdish activism didn’t feel good. Because it wasn’t real. The message got harmed. And ultimately everyone lost out there. 

you might feel good about being Christian. You might love coming to church and telling people you are Christian, and all that. But If you aren’t feeling the burden of faith in struggling to make every moment count, you are offering a faulty product to God. 

Don’t settle for a substitute. 

Romans 12 tells us that Christians are offering our whole lives as living sacrifices to God. What sort of sacrifice is yours?

Don’t settle for second best. 

Being a Christian is hard work. And it’s constant work. Clean off the blemishes. make sure you are unblemished by sin. We aren’t like the lambs, they were born that way. We are able to remove our blemishes. With God’s help. 

You don’t have to be perfect to be accepted by God. You are forgiven through Christ. But you do have to work. 

You don’t like someone. That’s fine. You don’t have to like everyone. You have to do the hard work and make sure you fight any resentment toward them. 

Something about your life is dissatisfying, you have to do the hard work to make sure you are still thankful to God. 

You also have to do things properly:
If you are serving, you must do so thoroughly and deliberately. 

If you are praying, you must push yourself to pray more heartfelt prayyers. 
Or more theologically sound prayers (don’t just pray for friends, family and work - pray for what God wants in the world, for the gospel). 

If you are bringing a sacrifice to God. And if that sacrifice is your whole life. Bring him your best. Don’t settle for a cheap substitute. 

Epilogue

I have already planned what I would say to Tigrisi Witness if I were to run into him again. 

You don’t need to have a more exciting life. Concentrate on what you do have. don’t worry about how boring it is. God has given you this life to honour him with it. He has given you many people, and friends and family. It doesn’t need to be more exciting. You just have to make the most of each moment. Do that instead. 

How to gauge an individual’s faith in a single question.

I'm going to put a question to you, and you have to go with your gut response. The theory is that whatever you come up with says something about your faith. If everything’s fine in you, it should indicate something about how you perceive the spiritual condition of your church as a whole.

What's the question?

It's “why aren’t you bringing people to church?” 

Stop and think about it. Don’t think about what the rest of this post is going to say.

What’s *your* answer? 

 

 


I've found that the question doesn't actually require much thought. You should have an answer automatically.

 

 


I’m going to try and articulate a variety of responses and what they reveal about your faith at the moment. I haven't really included the extreme positive response where someone successfully keeps bringing heaps of people all of whom commit to being Christian as a result.

This post has 2 sections: answers that reveal where individuals are, and answers that reveal how people see the rest of the church.

 

The Faith of Individuals

Answer 1:

Back off legalist. This is an accusation. You’re saying I’m a lower class Christian because I’m not bringing people to church. Not cool. 

The anti-legalist response. Or positively, the uses-Christian-freedom-a-little-too-much response. If this is you, you need to repent of your loose morality. You might be caught up in some sin or another that plays on your conscience now and then, but actually that’s just a cover. The real problem is that you don’t want to give your heart fully over to God. Anti-legalists like you forget that bringing people into the kingdom of heaven is so great for *the other people*. It’s not a notch on your belt, it’s introducing people to their great God who loves them and wants to them to begin living eternal life now that honour God and delight in their creator and saviour. 

Answer 2:

I’ve asked every man and their dog and no one wants to come.

The opposite problem to the anti-legalist. You ARE a legalist. No one wants to come to your church because your life just isn’t that attractive. People are smarter than you think and they can tell that you aren’t asking for their sake, but for yours. Why would they want to join a group where they feel the burden of keeping little rules as much as you do.
You need to actually learn to delight in the community instead of just *doing the jobs that make you look good in the community*. You need to pray as if God is listening and really lay your heart out before him, instead of just saying words to yourself because you think you should. And most importantly, you need to delight in the people you are inviting to church. When going to church and living as a Christian is really transforming you, then people will want to find out what has been fuelling your fire. 

Answer 3:

All my friends are Christian. I don’t have anyone to ask.

Well, um, you need to, er, make some new friends…

Seriously though, can you stop being so insular?! Haven’t you noticed that Sally-Jane the newsagent is a bit glum all the time. Why don’t you be the one who lets her know that she’s special. No, not special to YOU, special to God. You’ve noticed Steven the skateboarder feels like he’ll amount to nothing. He’s not nothing to God. What about Mike and Jenny down the street who love their kids. You know that God loves their kids too, right? No, seriously. You know this from the bottom of your heart, don’t you. So what about them? And what about all the people who are so close to you?! Why have you given up on them?  Look around, Dr Insular. They are everywhere when you open your eyes to see them. 

Answer 4:

I’m too busy to do that properly.

Really? What’s sooo much more important than the kingdom of heaven. Your job is too demanding? You have too many commitments? Quite simply you need to work out your priorities and make time for what is important. It might take a while to make all the changes, but we are talking about eternity and the Kingdom of heaven. It’s worth it.

Answer 5:

I’m already doing so much. I just can’t think of this right now. 

You sound burnt out. Being a Christian should give you energy and joy, and even though right now it’s not. Your main problem is that you are putting out more than you are getting in. You need to either decrease your output or increase your input. On the former, remember that even Jesus took a hike up the mountain to pray - have you done the same lately? On the latter, remember Jesus’ chilling comment in his letter to the church in Ephesus, who were suffering the same problems as you -  they worked just as hard persevering through hard times and keeping sound doctrine. But…

Rev. 2:4       Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. 5 Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. 

Removing the lampstand is not good. It’s more or less removing the church’s status as a church or even as Christians!

Church culture problems

It could be that an individual is keeping  people are ready and willing to invite people and even have people to invite but still don’t. Here’s some answers that have come up. 

Answer 6

I don’t trust the other people at church to be welcoming to newcomers.

This answer suggests that there’s an epidemic of people who would give answer 3.

Answer 7

The other people at church make Christianity look bad.

There’s an epidemic of people who would give answers 1 & 2.

Answer 8

The music and age demographic of this church will be foreign to the people I know and witness to.  

A bad workman blames their tools. If your church is truly spiritually vital, then music and demographics won’t matter that much. People get drawn into communities of life. 

I remember visiting a church that was surprisingly large given the quality of the service, everything was lousy: the music (dodgy guitar), the service leading (very obviously unplanned and disorganised.), the building (non-existent, it was under a tree outdoors), preaching (wimpy). But there was clearly a lot of love between members and as a result it had a faithful core of  regulars of all ages. I was made to feel very welcome. Think about this.

At the same time, doing things well does count for something. And tighter coordination is more important when organising and directing larger numbers of people. There is also something deeply satisfying and God-honouring about seeking quality and maintaining high standards. We are created in God’s image, right? When God finished things, he saw that they were good. Do that too.

Conclusion

What I’m saying is that when you are trying to build the church the most important thing is that each member has a strong sense of spiritual vitality; that they have a strong sense of the nearness of the Kingdom of Heaven; that their lives are being noticeably reformed and are attractive to outsiders; that they are open-hearted and warm towards all newcomers. 

Everything else comes second to this. 

How much is a prayer worth? Increasing productivity by assigning value

Stipend not Wages

Before I start, let me get one thing straight: ministers receive a stipend NOT wages because ministry is more like a lifestyle than a job. A stipend is paid living expenses, *so that* the whole life lived is devoted to service and ministry. Wages is money paid for work done. Ministry resembles a job in many ways, but it’s not a job. Ministry is a life. This means that as a minister you spend time on activities that create little empirically measurable difference to the world (e.g. praying or studying). Indeed the bulk of ministry work is relational, spiritual and intellectual. Powerful and important work in ministry may even seem unimpressive and entirely unproductive. Thus, it's a stipend, it's not wages.

Thesis

This makes learning productivity as a minister inherently difficult. So I’m hoping to simply add an idea to help start deeper thought on this. To summarise my thesis: we should use the concept of money to leverage our productivity, prioritise important work and concretise the unclear and intangible nature of ministry. 

A broken system of ministry productivity

When I was doing MTS, the rector of the church divided the week up slots - morning, afternoon and evening  equalling 21 potential slots per week. He said work between 12 and 16 slots per week. It’s not a bad method. Well, yes it is. It has serious problems. What do you do? Are there more valuable activities than others? ‘Just work a good amount’ provides no clarity on what to do. Neither does it distinguish between emotionally taxing work and pleasant energising work.

Assigning value to our work

I’ve been reading a textbook corporate finance recently, and I think that we can learn a simple lesson from the corporate world. That lesson is simply to assign a value to the work we do. What better value measurement is there than assigning a price in local currency, such as, $AUD?

So to get the hard numbers we need to work with the system we have. Let’s begin by changing ministry work remuneration from stipend to wage. After doing my calculations I’ve come up with $28ph for a theologically-trained, smart, competent, ordained minister. It’s a good number, because it is equivalent to a base wage for a trained professional. 

So what does that make a minister’s activities worth? I've made a broad but incomplete list of tasks a minister can go about and I've assigned money figures to these tasks. In particular, I distinguish between ‘cost to church’ and ‘value to church’. I'm indicating these with bold and italic type. Quick definition distinctions:
Cost to church = hours x wages.  
Value to church = price for a secular equivalent.

Sermon:

Cost 8-12 hours: $224-336
When I was at college we were told that a sermon should take around this amount of time to prepare. 5 years out, I’d say it’s a good amount of prep time to aim for. 
Secular equivalent: This is tricky and depends on how you see your sermon. Academic lecturers would get about that. Motivational speakers would get a whole range depending on how good they are, let’s say $250-1000. Professional development trainers would be about that amount. All in all,  I think $224-336 is a good price for a sermon. Another way to think about cost: in a congregation of 50 it’s around $4.50-6.70 each to listen to your sermon.
Value: How much would they pay? I don't know, ask them. Ask them secretly if you want an honest answer.

Prayer:

Cost: $28 per hour… that’s like 50c per day right? Jokes. 
Secular equivalent: I’m not going to even try to name a secular equivalent. I find the idea repellent. But from a faith and value point of view 30mins-1hour in prayer each day at our assigned rate of $28ph. This means $14-28 is disproportionately cheap for what you get. And it becomes more and more of a bargain the stronger your faith is in it’s power. 

Pastoral care: 

this is an interesting one, because it can happen in a number of ways. I’ll try to break some of them down. 

‘How are you going?’ phone call: 5-15mins. Cost = $2.30-$7. 
Secular equivalent: I don’t know what this would be… some kind of paid care and follow-up? Maybe a community worker. In any case it’s expensive. I’d guess the same service would cost $10-50. As in quadruple the salary - I think phone calls really demonstrate that you care. 

Biblical counselling:

Cost = $28 per hour + recovery time of 30mins - $14 = $42. 
This is when a parishioner specifically needs to understand and apply Biblical teaching to their lives **because of a problem or circumstance**. 
Equivalent secular value: $80 but diminishing depending on how much is done. - I picked $80 because I think it is valuable but less specialised (and regulated) than clinical psychology. If a minister spends a huge amount of time counselling per week, it comes at the opportunity cost of training - specifically equipping parishioners to undertake ministry for themselves, thus strengthening the church into the future. I will arbitrarily pick 3 ‘counselling re: issues’ hour long sessions as optimum, after which there is diminishing value for the church as a whole. Say $50 for the next 3 hours, then $28 for any additional hours spent on counselling (for personal issues).

Training:

Cost = $28per hour + 10-20mins prep = around $33-37.
This is where ministers impart knowledge and skills to parishioners and/or senior ministers to their assistants/training ministers to trainees.  Explaining books of the Bible, tricky passages, theological issues, apologetic answers, ethical issues and justification. I would value this at $90 per hour.
This can be increased dramatically ($150+) if specific skills are taught. e.g. Bible reading skills (macro: global Biblical theology understanding - i.e. understanding the whole Bible and how the various books fit into this scheme, micro: how to pay attention to individual words and phrases - using grammars and lectionaries, etc.), theological methodology, ministry skills.

Expertise: 

THis one might sound odd, but I’m talking about value so it needs to be here.
I think ministers are inherently worth a certain amount of money each week simply for existing. Once you have been 4-6 years in training and you have tested qualifications in ANYTHING you are valuable. The same is true of theology students. Simply being able to understand and diagnose unclear and inadequate theology, let alone explain anything is a skill. I’m putting $100 as a subscription/reservation fee (I don’t know… I’m just making it up! You can make it $0 on yours!), and any questions that ministers field after that are at a standard consultant rate. By employing a minister, congregations ‘reserve’ exclusive access to their expertise. If you are reading this as a congregation member, make good use of your minister’s expertise.

Secular equivalent: I’d say that any answers given should be valued at training rates above, i.e. standard commercial consultant rates.  

Admin:

I moderately hate admin, but it has to be done. Could someone else do it? Then it’s worth less than $28, if it can only be done by you then it’s time spent appropriately and it’s worth at least $28 or more depending on how important it is. 

Bible study leading:

Cost $28-56
Value $80-160

Walk up evangelism:

Value $120 per hour

Planning and executing events: 

I don’t know. 

Planting a new congregation:

Planning time value: $60 per hour
Launching and continuance value - $2000 launch, $3000 for every 6 months it stays alive. I don’t know. I'm just making it up here. 

Property maintenance:

I’ve noticed that ministers with strong leadership (and strong congregational attendance) will outsource this. I suspect because it is highly demanding on attention with little tangible benefit to congregational growth and spirituality, i.e., not a highly valuable use of time given the specialised skills of a minister.


Weekends away:

increase in value over time. 


THE benefits of this model. 

But if you look at this model a minister can calculate their daily value. There could be 2 aims firstly simply to be worth more than your cost each day: $224. That is all that is *required* for simple faithfulness.  

A minister could do a solid 3 hours of straight pastoral phone calls. And then spend the afternoon reading theology, or some other low key activity. And that’s ok. People work requires recovery time. 

At the same time, there should be a drive to be increasingly valuable. A minister worth double or triple their cost should be kept around. 

This could be a way for rectors to measure assistant minister’s performance in a clear, objective impersonal manner. 

A defence of using money as a measure. Arguably you could come up some other measure of value (points, anyone?…. No I forbid anyone from using a points system.) The commercial world around us understands money and value. We should too. Thinking in terms of monetary value drives your thinking in new directions - you should naturally start thinking with a view to the future, in particular the preservation and longevity of the church. 

To grow a church, choose experience-based transformative ministries over community services

Don’t start a mothers group, start an esl ministry. 

Hire a music ministry pastor over a straight assistant minister.

I’m talking to small churches looking to grow via unbelievers joining and becoming Christian. Big churches make decisions differently. They need to invest strongly in administrative processes so that growth will be accommodated naturally into robust preexisting structures. Although the point remains true for them too. 

When deciding what next to do, choose transformative or experiential programs rather than community services. 

People are more likely to extend a transformative program into conversion than they are to add conversion to a ‘time filler’. 

Mothers groups are a time filler. They are a godsend to stressed mothers who are struggling to find ways to entertain their toddlers. They do not require any transformation of attendees. 

Introducing Christianity courses are transformative. The Christian worldview reforms the heart and Jesus makes high demands of his followers. Properly understanding Christianity, obviously, is transformative. 

ESL ministries are transformative. They pretend to be time fillers or community services but they are actually transforming an individual by increasing their ability to partake in their new society. This is profound. 
Most classes include a short Bible reading which is, in itself transformative. Including a small Bible reading (mine are 5mins or less) has a similar effect as an Introducing Christianity course (see above), although in a long term ‘drip feed’ kind of way. 

Renting your church hall to a study club is NOT transformative. 

Starting a childcare centre on church property is NOT transformative. Nor is planting a retirement village. 

Running boys-to-men rite of passage weekend aways IS transformative.

Craft groups are NOT transformative.

Social justice and community welfare services are NOT transformative. Well, maybe they are. It is always good for the heart to be generous. Always. And I’m sure that churches that help the poor and needy make an impact in the lives of the poor in many instances. My only point is that if your church is on the back foot and becoming closer and closer to being unviable, you should not start a soup kitchen. Concentrate on programs that will strengthen the core of the church so that you will be able to sustainably serve the poor in the future. 

Friday night kids clubs ARE transformative, but only for the kids that attend. Parents who decide whether they want to take the family to church on Sunday are not transformed by Friday night kids clubs. To them it’s just a time filler… 2 hours of quiet house!

 

Caveat: I’m not against programs that aren’t transformative. They are great for community exposure. But if you are looking specifically to grow church via engaging new believers and incorporating them into your community, choose transformative programs. 

Church planting: a simplified financial approach

Let's say you want to plant a church cold (just you & your wife & kids if you have them). How long until you are financially viable?

Ok, this is me just thinking out loud, my facts and figures below are entirely anecdotal and based on my own experiences. All reasoning is bunk guesswork. 

Let's just say you graduated from theological college and you got all fired up and decided to plant a completely new church somewhere you've never been before. 

You touchdown in a new area with no Christian contacts and you start witnessing faithfully and thoughtfully with mixed reaction. 

You start a weekly Sunday home church targetted at young people. 

You have some success and over 12 months gain 6 converts, two of which are really committed. 

Of the six, 4 come irregularly and contribute around $30 each time they come. After crunching the numbers you work out that in general, 2 irregular members turn up per week. They contribute $60 per week to church costs. 

2 members are very faithful, attend every week and contribute $50 each per week. 

That means that over 12 months the church has gone from generating no income to generating  $160 per week which is $8320 per year. On average $15 per week per irregular member, and $50 per week per faithful member. 

Let's just say that those who join, join permanently. No one leaves to go to another suburb or church. 

Let's also say that the fruit is constant and the same amount join the next year , and the next year and so on. 

Stipend is about $70K, modest family housing is around $30K. At what size would this congregation be to be naturally supporting a minister on stipend? 

Not accounting for inflation.

There would have to be 12 groups the same size. Which is a church of 72 giving adults. 24 of these are strongly faithful, 48 are irregular coming twice per month. 

This congregation will take 12 years to gather. 

It does not have a building. Unless you count the minister's house which they are renting.  

The building project

Let's just say they want a more permanent arrangement so the church decides to buy a building. At today's Sydney prices let's guess that that will cost $3-4million including a rectory (in all honesty, quite unlikely!).  

I hate to think what sort of time it would take to be able to afford a building and paying it off.

It would have to grow steadily to 150 members (let's say another 12 years) in order to secure another $100K mortgage payback power. 

Let's say they then pay off their building in 25 years. Which presumes they have likely grown in size and collected a significant amount of one off donations to drastically reduce the mortgage repayment timeframe. 

There you go. That took 48 years. 

Yes, there are plenty of massive presumptions in there, enough to entirely undermine the reasoning. But not so many to undermine the point: what SHOULD a church plant look like 50 years on. 

Towards an agile Christian ministry in the future

The changes in society are strongly affecting Christain ministry. In fact, I would say that ministry as we know it must change now or we will get caught out.... very quickly!  

For various reasons the cost of employing a full time minister is becoming too high for normal, small suburban churches.  I don’t know how many of my fellow Moore graduates are looking for work in churches at the moment.

Ministers need to make adequate money to support their families. 

And yet, the gospel is not getting any less urgent. 

Normal, small suburban areas are still crying out for ministers and energised church planters to lead and minister God’s truth to them. 

Christian ministry needs to be faster and more responsive in our ever to a changing world to be ready to meet the needs of the small, suburban churches. 

Our society has proven to be much more responsive to systemic problems: in as little as 10 years we have seen dozens of entrepreneurs solving all kinds of social and technical problems, reinventing entire industries to the astonishment and benefit of us all. 

The church is in a place where it needs to do this too. 

We have an extraordinary amount of untapped potential sitting in our pews each Sunday. Congregation members, church buildings, methods of volunteering, everything could be reconsidered.

However the question of finances is by far the most pressing and important of all. 

Let me have a go:

How would the church be different if all the skilled high-level professionals in our congregations gave time to teaching an important and valuable skill to a minister and then employed them 3-4 days per week. 

Combined with a significantly reduced stipend (e.g. 20-40% of stipend), a coordinated laity and good communication, a church generating $90K per year could hire three to four ministers at 2 days per week each. 

You could run a church with that kind of manpower, couldn’t you?

What do you think?

Why I'm writing a new The Message

When I first started out as a Christian, I was greatly helped by Eugene Peterson's The Message. The first time I read through the NT was on an old copy of The Message. The church I was in quoted The Message all the time. Everyone seemed to love The Message. As I moved away from the charismatic church in favour of Sydney evangelicalism, I moved away from The Message. In my circles people would occasionally mock it's wierd colloquialisms - it did sound like the writer was a particular age from a particular part of America. More seriously, some would question the strength of it's interpretive decisions. Some appeared to be quite serious weaknesses. I would ask people every now and then: "Why doesn't someone make a new The Message?" Although I could see the weaknesses that people spoke of, I still felt that the idea was strong. Really strong. 

Once when I was in Bible college, I asked a lecturer "why doesn't someone make a new The Message?" and they shot back "I don't know. Why don't you?" To which I didn't have an answer. "Maybe I should then!" I said, then I didn't. 

During my first appointment as an assistant minister, I was working with Internationals and I really wanted to help them to understand the Bible. So I had a go at fleshing out a colloquial sounding alternative to The Message. But I realised my understanding of the text was so basic, as to be irrelevant. I mean I could barely understand the Greek, let alone manipulate it with any sense of finesse. Very quickly I came across a nasty verse that required some expertise. So I opened up a Bible commentary to find out what a genious thought it meant. 

... and then it struck me, I don't have to be an expert. All I have to do is convey what an expert thinks the Bible is saying. 

And a project was born. I would make it my ambition to teach however many interested people a deep and powerful reading of the Scriptures by conveying what a leading expert thinks of the text in layman's speak. I would read Bible commentaries and once I believe that I have understood clearly what the commentator thinks. I take all his recommendations for interpretation, write them all down and begin crafting a text that conveys all the various necessary nuances to give a crystal clear understanding of the text that strongly conveys authorial intention. It would read like a Bible, but I haven't really felt comfortable calling it a translation. So that's where it became boiled down Bible commentary.

All this actually trumps The Message's (seemingly) ad hoc methodology, by grounding all exegetical choices in the findings of established scholars. Also, by carefully selecting each commentary to boil down, a ready resource and transition point to academic thinking on the scriptures can be directly consulted by interested readers (i.e. they just buy the commentary that I boiled down). New Christians can quickly gain the understanding of seasoned Christians on any given passage, seasoned Christains can clarify their opinions against leading experts -  without demanding that amateur Bible readers wade through endless arguments and counter arguments. 

Also, being an English teacher, I'm very sensitive to speaking in as much of a universally 'normal' manner as possible. That means simple grammar, minimal jargon and no crazy idioms are also features of this text.

I know that it won't be everyone's cup of tea, that's fine. I honestly don't mind if you like it or not. I'm certain there will be a couple of people who will, and that is enough. 

For James and 1 Corinthians, click here

 

Why call it 'Okay Church'?

The title okay church is adapted from a website I happened upon called okaytype.com, which had a font called Alright Sans.  I thought the whole understated vibe was kinda cool, and noone had registered okaychurch.com... and all the other names I thought up were worse. 

I guess if you call something 'awesome church', most people will cringe because their version of awesome might be different from yours.