Author and pastor Richard Foster began his classic work on the disciplines of grace, Celebration of Discipline with what many considered an accurate read of the times. He wrote, “Superficiality is the curse of this age”.1 Many of our cultural ills are symptomatic of a new shallowness that stands in sharp contrast to the availability of information and the opportunities for depth that such an age affords.
Last week I led revival services in a small, rural, South Carolina Baptist church. One of the messages I felt led to bring to that congregation was entitled “The Empty Suit”. It was an exposition of Ephesians 3:16-19, reading from the English Standard Bible—
That according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
The point of the message was to compare the seeming emptiness of so many contemporary lives with the depth of fullness promised in God’s Word. One of the sound bytes I included in the sermon was a short sentence declaring that far too often, “It’s just another Sunday.”
After the service that evening a sweet older lady approached. She said, “I gave my life to Jesus right there (pointing to the spot in front of the Lord’s Supper table) when I was twelve years old. Every Sunday since then I’ve given my heart to him anew. And, I’m ninety-four years old now”. I can’t tell you how her simple words of personal renewal encouraged and challenged me. There were so many times over the past thirty-five years when our worship, my preaching, and the response of the people seemed so mundane and routine. Then, she added, “It’s never just another Sunday”.
Glancing in the rear-view mirror is always instructive. In this instance the gentle woman’s comment compelled me to examine those moments in ministry when worship, mission, the spiritual leadership of God’s people, and the work of ministry seemed as if we were just going through the motions, me at the front of the line. This thought reminded me what my colleague Reggie McNeil said about receiving a treadmill as a gift from his family. It threw him off base because he envisioned the treadmill as a prime metaphor of our times: much effort with no progress. We all laughed when he described it as the most expensive clothes hanger he had ever owned. But, it was an apt description of the emptiness that can creep into our ministry experiences.
Three distinct treadmills seemed most characteristic of these times. Let me comment.
(1) The preparation treadmill.
Most spiritual leaders who teach and preach fall into predictable patterns of personal preparation. These metrics are usually the result of time pressures in balancing the needs of family life, personal devotion, and shepherding the flock of God entrusted to us. For thirty-five years I taught on Wednesday and Sunday evenings and preached one or two services on Sundays. Studying to show myself approved in order to rightly handle the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15) required some discipline. That discipline, rigidly held, soon developed into a systematic approach to being prepared in season and out of season (2 Timothy 4:2).
To curb this tendency I devoted one Tuesday every month to long- term sermon and lesson preparation. On those days I would escape the office to a special place of devotion and layout three months of sermon and teaching series. This added a special, fresh venue in the hope of by-passing the preparation treadmill. It became a valued and significant approach to reflect on the spiritual needs of the church and prepare sermons and lessons to address those perceived needs. It was good to remember that Jesus often withdrew to lonely places for personal preparation (Luke 5:16).
(2) The presentation treadmill.
Yes, I learned to preach and teach three points and a poem. This pattern of delivery was modeled by each of the pastor’s who had guided my pre-seminary life. At seminary I learned about topical sermons, expository preaching, and other impressive delivery models.
Suddenly, a few years ago, the world shifted and people became more visually attuned and participatory in worship. That’s when I learned to prepare Power Point presentations, visual illustrations, and personal story telling as sermon delivery techniques. They enlivened me and gave me fresh insight into Scripture and its application to the lives of those entrusted to my care. To learn to preach and teach like Jesus was a new goal, rather than seeking to emulate the great preachers and teachers that had influenced me.
(3) The performance treadmill.
There’s a temptation crouching at the door (see Genesis 4:7) of a more visual and participatory worship experience. It is the inclination for our corporate times to become performance and entertainment oriented. The treadmill in this regard is our need to do something more dramatic next time than last. In one extreme we tend to do the same things over and over again. Here, the lure is to be so unique and new that the important repetitions of faith are ignored. Remembering God as the audience of our worship drama is more than Kierkegaard’s vivid illustration. It is what keeps us from the performance treadmill.
This sweet, aged believer reminded me that there’s never “just another Sunday”. Every person gathered for worship, teaching, and preaching are assembled for a Word from the God who is eternal and whose Word is always new. It was a profound lesson that this old preacher/teacher needed to hear.
1 Richard Foster, The Celebration of Discipline, (San Francisco, Harper and Row, 1978). pg. 1