Tag Archives: Preaching

Why I Write My Sermons In A Bar


One of my “insider” interests is learning how other pastors handle sermon prep. What I have discovered is no two pastors are ever exactly the same except that all have a process, every step in the process is intentional and the whole thing begins with with an initial Monday morning panic, “Can I make a message out of this by Sunday?”

My process isn’t terribly novel. In general terms, I prefer to preach either expositionally (through books of the Bible) or theologically (some people call this “topical” and yet my focus is more on the theology of a theme than merely good advice giving). Where I may differ from many of my fellow preachers is that my prep is sliced into two distinct environments. It begins in the lab of my study and ends in the field that is a bar.

In The Lab That Is A Study

I recently read an article that said pastors should not have offices, but studies. I like that. So I have a study. My study is like a lab; a controlled environment with everything I need for the task of research. I begin in the lab by copy-and-pasting a double-spaced version of my biblical text for the week into a Word document. I then read the passage over and over, identifying patterns, scribbling notes, logging insights and asking random questions with each pass. I would guess I scan and scribble through the passage around 20 times, usually finding that the most valuable insights hit around the 15th pass. From there I do my exegetical work. For those unfamiliar with our hip clergy nomenclature, exegesis is when we seek to understand the meaning of a book of the Bible in its original language, culture and context. It may sound dull, but for Bible nerds this is the biblical peanut butter to our theological jelly. Once that is complete, I pile my desk with books and read till I feel I need to unbuckle my mental belt like its a post Thanksgiving Day dinner.

As the above process unfolds I regularly shake out the cramping in my right hand. I’m feverishly jot down informational aggregate on my narrow rule TOPS white legal pad, using my Pentel 0.7mm mechanical pencil and rotating through my pile of Ticonderoga Emphasis highlighters (shameless product placements) to mark varied themes with various colors (yellow is technical, green is illustrative, pink is pithy, orange is for us today, blue is transitional and purple is key points). Finally, I figure out the key breaks in the passage that will act as transitions through the sermon and I put each of those sections into a PowerPoint build. By the end of my time “in the lab”, I have logged around 20-30 hours and piled up anywhere between 10-20 pages of notes. With my lab research done I grab my ESV Bible, research notes, TOPS pad, Pentel pencil and head to a bar.

In The Field That Is A Bar

Labs are pristine, antiseptic and protected. That gives us the ability to research in ways that are ideal, controlled and precise. Field research is messy, inconvenient and unpredictable, yet true to life. A local bar (a cantina technically) is my field research. It is the last stage in my process and the location where I put the majority of my sermons together.

As I walk in, the familiar Latino bartender greets me with our customary ritual, “Amigo! Mac and Jack?” Mac and Jack’s is hands down the best African Amber on the planet and is brewed just over the hill. I give him my usual thumbs-up and find a place to sit down. My table is the far back corner. It gives me the best view of the room.

On this day there are two middle-aged women at the far booth. Each has a margarita the size of a kiddy pool. They are loud, animated and angry – at a man. The one on the left is mad at her man. The one on the right is mad at the same man, but only as a show of solidarity for the friend across from her. Hell hath no furry like two angry women with a gallon of margarita between them.

I smirk and think, “I’m glad I’m not that guy.” And I write.

Further to my right, two men sit at the bar. One is retired, has a cane, wears a veteran hat and is eager to initiate a conversation with anyone who sits within three seats. A couple seats down is a young guy, blue collar, no wedding ring and looks like he came straight from moving a mountain of dirt with his bare hands and then used his face as the wash cloth. He’s sipping Fireball, watching the soccer game and riding that fine line with the vet of being just polite enough to keep conversation at arms length without being disrespectful.

I’m like the younger guy. I’m sad for the older guy. And I write.

Closer to my immediate left are two young women in their 20’s. I can hear how the one feels betrayed because she just found out her boyfriend has a porn issue. Her friend seeks to console her, assuring her of how the boyfriend in question doesn’t deserve her. Suddenly one of the the two loud margarita ladies unexpectedly shouts, “Men Suck!” and the consoling 20 something responds, “Amen!” (Yes, you would be surprised how much “Amen” comes up in a bar). The laughter and camaraderie cuts away the anger and betrayal for a few brief seconds before reality returns, and with reality the conversations.

I grieve. I pray. And I write.

Behind me around the corner is the restaurant area. Just within earshot I can hear a family. The newborn baby is crying and big brother (who may be all of 4-5 years old) is repeating, “I’m bored! I’m bored!” Dad must be lost on his phone because of the terse female voice that comes next, “Are you going to deal with your son?”

I remember. And I write.

After a few minutes a third man appears at the bar. I’ve seen him a few times before. White collar, wedding ring, never really talks. He sits at the bar for one drink in a small glass and leaves. It seems to be his soft space between stressful worlds.

I look. I ponder. I pray. And I write.

It is in this immersive environment where I begin to construct my final thoughts; pushing what I have studied through an ether vastly different than the atmosphere of my study. As I do my mind bends toward various questions as the message unfolds:

How would people in a bar understand this?

Would people in a bar know what to do with this?

Do people in a bar even care about this?

What biases might the two younger women have about the importance of this?

What words or ideas would the unmarried dirt covered guy be unfamiliar with?

What questions would the married business guy and his one drink have about this?

What confusion might be stirred up for the worn out parents with their two young kids?

What objections would the loud margarita ladies have about this?

What conclusions would the retired veteran have about this?

What humor, illustrations, word pictures or pop culture references can I use that most of the people in a bar would instantly understand?

What religious clichés are so loaded that they might sabotage what I believe people need to understand regarding this?

How can I do all of this and still ensure that Jesus, above all else, is honored and pleased with what I say?

Now obviously I don’t systematically walk through these questions after every point. They are more the natural consequence of the environment as I compile the sermon. Completing my message in a bar forces an awareness of and sensitivity to people in real life. It unlocks the questions in a way far more authentic than anything I might duplicate by just imagining people in the isolation of my study. And I do this, not in the hopes of understanding the “lost”, but so as to understand people; not the least of which being the “saved” ones. The bar is a transparent microcosm of the same realities, challenges and conversations “saved” people face. A bar is filled with the same kind of demographic diversity that a church seeks to create. And ultimately a bar is popular for the same reason a church; because people are looking for a safe place in which some seek to hide, others want to connect and still others invest to belong.

Mind you a bar isn’t a perfect place, but neither are people. Praise God that His Bible, His Gospel and His Grace always is.


Confessions: I Want To Preach Like A Reject

MB PostsFor a couple years one of the all-consuming sins I struggled with was that I wanted people to like me. They didn’t need to like every part of me, or even most of me. I wasn’t looking for a group of friends. No, I was looking for something far more specific. I wanted a congregation of fans. I wanted a people who loved preacher me. I wanted to assemble a crowd who would promote “Pastor Matt Inc.” because, well frankly, I wanted to be a brand. Deep down inside I aspired to become a name among the big names. I imagined being the next new funny, edgy, creative, insightful and provocative preacher. In short, I was using Jesus while praying, “Jesus, I want to be used.” In fact, my wife even confronted me on this more than once with the simple loving phrase, “Matt, I worry that you’re good enough at this that you don’t need Jesus, and that’s a problem.”

Now at the time I would push back on her. I didn’t want to recognize the validity of her insight. She was probing a bit too deep. Tenaciously I would argue how my actions were not about me. It was all about reaching the lost. But over the years a few honest stares in the mirror have humbled me to the point where I can now confess these things openly. In fact, to my shame, I would admit that my want of notoriety even caused me to abandon some of my doctrinal roots so I could “win the more” through my ability to win their will. From this, reaching people to be my listeners became more important than proclaiming Jesus so He could have His followers. This isn’t to say that I failed to preach the name of Jesus each Sunday, but the person of Jesus was driven through a filter designed to collect people more than confront sin. He was a therapeutic hipster Jesus who looked a lot like Bono, and I was going to ride His novelty to my celebrity. At least that was the unfolding plan until the devastating grace of God crushed my emergent pride.

The story of how everything changed is too long to share here, but the condensed version is that I was run through by the very doctrines I believed would produce celebrity: and what a beautiful execution it was. It restored in me an addiction for the grace, love, holiness, truth and sovereignty of God. As I looked anew upon the magnitude of Jesus, my lust for recognition began to extinguish. From this I was recharged with a determination, not for my renown, nor for our church’s growth, but to make Jesus fully known even if that meant everything else came to nothing. With fresh fire I was renewed to preach, not the Jesus people wanted, but the Jesus people needed. And the difference between the two is colossal.

One seeks a savior who loves me with my sins, the other is a Savior who saves me from my sins.

One resides on a stool alongside my throne, the other offers His throne through the surrender of mine.

One makes the offer that you can pick and choose what you want to follow, the other says you must pick Whom you will choose to follow.

The former is “a Jesus” as we want to reconstruct Him, the latter is Jesus as He has revealed Himself to be.

What the Holy Spirit thrust upon my heart is that the opportunity to proclaim the worth and excellence of Christ is in itself the reward. We see this was the same impetus in the call of Isaiah. Imagine this poor guy when he’s commissioned to preach. God rolls in and says, “I want you to go and preach to a people who won’t pay any attention. You will be known as the dude no one wants to know. You will be the preacher everyone wishes would just shut-up. Your church will be the size of pool party in Greenland. In short Isaiah, you will be a reject.” Think about that. There is, from the outset, no hope given to Isaiah that there would be national repentance. Before he is even boots on the ground he is guaranteed an anti-revival. I don’t know too many pastors who would take that gig. In fact I’m not certain Isaiah would have taken it on except for what happened.

So what seized upon Isaiah’s spirit and overcame the weight of guaranteed rejection? It was the overwhelming vision of God’s holy and gracious glory!

1 In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim… And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.”

Like Isaiah, it is only when we are found in God’s presence, looking upon His Holiness and experiencing the full measure of His atoning grace that our lust for recognition is vanquished with the compulsion to proclaim the excellence of His glory, and not even the guarantee of rejection can stop it.

To preach like a reject means to not be enslaved by a fear of rejection.

To preach like a reject means to not be detoured by the absence of a following.

To preach like a reject means to not be moved aside by the absence of moving ahead.

To preach like a reject means to preach Jesus for the sheer joy of Jesus.

Oh Lord, may we not preach to solicit the acceptance of men, to fulfill the want of celebrity or to fulfill our church growth idolatry, but only to proclaim the glory of Your grace revealed in the Person of Your Son Jesus. May we preach with the conviction of a reject who is incapable of human acquiescence for we are made alive by the vision of Your majesty.

Don’t Mistake Liking Church For Loving Jesus

MB PostsI recently met with a colleague who was sharing with me the focus of their church. With enthusiasm he said, “We’re not like most churches. We’re going after the people no one else is going after by creating a church that the unchurched love to attend.” The strategy he espoused wasn’t particularly novel. It reminded me of a time years ago when a buddy of mine invited me to attend  a meeting of “World Wide Dream Builders”. After 5 minutes I asked, “Is this going to be an Amway thing?” “No” he said, “It’s totally different. It’s Amway 2.0.” In talking with this pastor it felt like that conversation. I was hearing how it was unlike most churches, but it sounded like Willow Creek rebooted. In that sense it didn’t really seem to be unusual at all. Aside from this I know of a number of churches in the area that are employing the same strategy since it’s documented in a popular book that bears the same subtitle. In fact, as the discussion unfolded, he pointed me to that very book as the source of their philosophy. I have not had the time to make my way through the entire book and so my thoughts here are in no way those of a reviewer. Rather it was the premise alone that has bounced around in my head like a hyperactive 8th grader jacked up on NoDoz and Red Bull.

Initially I was intrigued by the idea of creating churches unchurched people would love to attend. After all the church should have a burden to reconnoiter its surroundings with the intent of embedding the message of Jesus and His Bible. In fact, I would go so far as to say every church should be unapologetic when it comes to leveraging whatever tools, tendencies or familiarities necessary to connect Jesus’s Message to the surrounding Culture. And yet as I continued to work over the implications of “creating churches the unchurched love to attend” my initial warmth chilled to a Fargo January dressed in brass boxers.

Now, to be fair, I believe we should seek to utilize culturally familiar ideas in order to bridge biblical concepts to the unchurched. For example, in the church I’m a part of we occasionally use secular music, video clips, props, humor and other socially familiar forms to help communicate the biblical message. We do this so that the unchurched can better understand whatever section of the Bible or theological topic we are going through, but in a way that is culturally relatable. In this sense our focus is, “creating a biblically centered church the unchurched can understand.” There is no guarantee they will like or agree with what is preached since we strive to preach whatever the text is saying regardless of its potential receptivity, but we call it “a win” if they understand what is being proclaimed.

If, however, the ideology of “creating a church the unchurched love to attend” is the top tier purpose of our strategy, the net effect may be a model that considers the interests of hopeful attenders above the instructions of the Founding Initiator. For it appears that inextricably laced within the premise is the idea that success is measured directly by how much people – who don’t like church – begin to love church.

So to grapple with this for a moment let’s strip it down to a more general concept. Generally speaking, how do we usually get people who don’t love something to love it? One method is to give them more of the thing that is loved (Example: My step-mom kept giving me eggplant until I learned to enjoy it.). The other method is to remove what people don’t love and replace it with something they do. The difference between the two is night and day; the former teaches people to love the thing that you love, while the latter loves people at the cost of the very thing you want them to love. Now plug this back into our church philosophy premise. When it comes to a church creating an environment “unchurched people love to attend,” the first casualty will be anything that they say is an impediment to them loving to attend. Therefore, at the root of this ideology is the need to remove themes, messages or expectations the unchurched may not love and in their place incorporate themes, messages or expectations they enjoy. It’s the ultimate case of the unchurched tail wagging the church dog.

For now, it appears that the model is successful since there are a handful of good themes the unchurched enjoy. Many people who may be cold to church are nonetheless warm to self-improvement regarding marriage, family, communication, conflict resolution, sex, money and occupation. As a result, such themes can be marketed and deployed by churches year after year because they are inoffensively therapeutic. But what are we to do if the day comes where the Bible’s message on good themes is frowned upon by the unchurched? Does the goal remain figuring out how to create churches they love? And how far are we to go in accommodating unchurched expectations? Some practitioners will answer, “We would draw a line if we needed to start denying what the Bible says.” Really? I would like to bank on that, but in all candor it seems that a soft form of denial has already been underway long before it was imposed. It began the day a church willfully embraced selective censorship for the sake of unchurched appetites. If a church proactively adopts an omission mandate when it is merely concerned that the unchurched may be turned off, what will it do when it is altogether guaranteed?

My deeper concern however isn’t that this model may be pacing itself into a biblical showdown. Nor is it that it may mistake the concept of becoming numerically successful with the mandate to be biblically faithful. The real kernel of my apprehension is that it may foster an attitude by which it’s assumed by all parties, “If people like church they love Jesus.” In reality however, there may be a substantial disconnect between who Jesus is and what makes a church loveable to the unchurched. For example, many of the themes churches are using to help the unchurched love attending church are not anchored directly in the core message or subsequent messages of Jesus.

The “7 Themes ‘A Seeker-Focused Church’ Knows The Unchurched Love To Hear” are typically:

  • Marriage
  • Parenting
  • Communication
  • Conflict Resolution
  • Sex
  • Money
  • Occupation

Many churches that are focused on leveraging Sunday as primarily an outreach venue will see these seven as the wheelhouse. Yet the content of those seven themes is not often rooted in what Jesus actually said in relationship to them. It’s more often 35 minutes of soft psychology (where a specialist, therapist or author is referenced more than Jesus), a moving story, a homework assignment for personal improvement (create a date night, have sex twice a week, try giving 1% and see what happens, etc) and perhaps three loosely invoked verses so as to maintain the title “sermon.” It is just enough of the Good Book to feel like church, but not so much that the unchurched would feel too confronted by the Bad News that gives them a need for the Good News. From this, one could, in all reality, love church because it’s “relevant” for their life, but then resist Jesus when they realize what He really says and seeks.

Think about the simplest form of the Good News in the four Gospels. Jesus’ “Big Idea” of relevant life change was like swallowing a horse pill with an Arizona case of cottonmouth.

“23 If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25 For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? 26 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” Luke 9:23-26 (ESV)

That is the unequivocal Gospel of Jesus in less than 100 words. And from that the question becomes, “Is this the message the unchurched hear when they attend churches they love?” It should be, because that is the only message that saves. And notice it’s not just, “Jesus died for you.” Letting people know that Jesus died for them is only half the Gospel. The message of first importance is, “Jesus died for sinful you. And to follow Him means you are dying to yourself and embracing who He is and everything He says.” In other words, to love Jesus means to love the truth that:

  • Jesus is God who came, died and rose.
  • Jesus is the only way to heaven and apart from Him there is only the separation of hell.
  • Jesus invites us to die to ourselves by repenting of our sin and self-focus.
  • Jesus warns us of a life that will bring more challenge than ease.
  • Jesus calls us to love Him by obeying everything He has said regardless if it is personally helpful or hurtful. (Note: Jesus did speak to all 7 Themes above, but His message on those does not promote well in a land where the great idols is “personal happiness.”)
  • Jesus expects that everything He said we will protect, promote and pursue.

If people only love the loveable words of Jesus, they don’t actually love Jesus.

If pastors only preach the loveable words of Jesus, they may never know if people have been given the opportunity to love (or reject) everything Jesus loves.

If leaders seek to love unchurched people only by creating churches they love to attend, we may be failing to love them fully by failing to cultivate a church that above all else – Jesus loves to attend.