Creative Sermon Themes I Backed Away From

I am always challenged by the creative ones in ministry. At times, I have some pretty creative (well, I think so at least) ideas for sermon themes, but because I either think of them too late, they're too expensive to complete or I think about it more deeply, I pass and end up with just another "non-creative" series.

Here are some of the ideas that I have had over the years that never made it to the "big church."

  • Ar124796242875242"Get the Monkey Off Our Back" - A series about debt and finances. I had this idea of using the "monkey" as an image of debt and the saying "monkey on my back" as the theme. I even contacted the Jacksonville Zoo and was working on having cages on the stage with monkeys in them during the service. Yes, this was going to happen, but I eventually decided against it due to regulations on having monkeys on a stage requiring a zookeeper and the reality that no one would be listening to anything I was saying, well. . .because, there would be monkeys on the stage. We were going to use "Planet of the Apes" movie clips as well, but couldn't figure out how to edit the famous Charlton Heston line to be "church-appropriate."
  • "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" - We had a series a number of years ago that used "Wizard of Oz" imagery. I'm not sure what the series was about, but the local dinner theater in Jacksonville  was actually running "Wizard of Oz" and we booked the star playing Dorothy to come, in character, on a Sunday morning, complete with Toto, to sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." I was voted down in staff meeting on this one, so I cancelled the singer (still paid her) and went on without the special guest. I regret backing up on this one. 
  • "Civil Wars" - This theme never really got off the ground, but was going to be a teaching series on division among believers. We have a church member who is a Civil War reenactor and we were going to have the entire stage set up with Blue and Grey uniforms, tents, guns (probably not a good idea in a church) and other props. 
  • "Live Long & Prosper" - Yes, it's a Star Trek theme. This one continues to be a discussion between one of our parking ushers, who is a big fan of the series and me. So far, this has not gone beyond that stage, but there are numerous phrases from the show (TOS - that's "The Original Series" for those who are not "Trekkers.") that have been suggested, such as "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. . .or the one." The thought would be to have different people on stage wearing the red, gold and blue shirts from the series. However, it should be noted that you do not want to be the designated "red shirt." You probably wouldn't make it through the service.
  • "Mayberry" - I had booked a Barney Fife impersonator from Missouri to come and do his show during a Sunday morning service time as the month's theme revolved around the "good old days" when things were simpler. We were even going to use the Rascal Flatts song "Mayberry" as a theme. We ended up canceling the impersonator and scratched the series, much to the chagrin of the TAGS Rerun Watchers Club (TAGS - that's "The Andy Griffith Show" for those who are not in the club.)

There are others. Maybe one day these series will see the light of day. It should be noted that we have done some creative series in the past. However, just because they were deemed "creative" doesn't mean they were good. Most were just weak copies of popular slogans, much like the really bad "Christian T-shirts" you see around town.

  • DCP_3544"Super Hero" - the time I had the 6'4" Superman statue on the stage, which, by the way, caused me some grief. Some said "You're worshipping Superman!" and one dear lady whose eyesight wasn't too strong was upset that "That lady in the red dress just stood on the stage during the entire sermon." Yes, she thought Superman was a lady and his cape was a dress.
  • "Lost & Found" - using imagery from the viral television show "Lost."
  • "SonTrust" - using a pretty weak "copy" of the SunTrust Bank logo.
  • "Desperate Homelives" - yep, a copy of Desperate Housewives.
  • "God the Builder" - for the parents of preschoolers who knew who Bob the Builder was.
  • "Born Again Identity" - sorry, no Matt Damon look-alike was booked for this one.
  • "Watchoverya" - another poor attempt at humor. A copy of Wachovia's logo.
  • "Classic Rock" - I really liked this one, but it was likely just an excuse to play "Boston" and "Kansas" music in the worship services. 

Reflections From Three Days with Baptist Pastors & Leaders

I have spent the last few days in Lakeland, Florida attending the Florida Baptist Pastors Conference and the annual Florida Baptist State Convention. It has been a good few days as I have been able to reconnect with pastors and ministry leaders from throughout our state. The worship leaders were wonderful and the sermons challenging and definitely God-inspired.

Here are some observations, in no particular order, of this convention and my opinions and inferences about the future work of Baptists in the state of Florida:

Leadership Matters

We have been blessed these past 25+ years to have Dr. John Sullivan lead Florida Baptists as Executive Director-Treasurer. As with any leadership task so large, there have been many challenges over the years. Since people are. . .well, people, there have been some personality conflicts over the years with Dr. Sullivan and some in the state. There have been disagreements and differing views as to how certain things should be done and I'm sure different views regarding vision for the future of the Florida Baptist Convention and all that makes up our cooperating union. 

However, even with those issues, which are common in any organization or church, Dr. Sullivan has led with dignity and honor. In a world (and a Christian sub-culture) that is continually changing, I have been thankful for Dr. Sullivan's stance on biblical authority, church autonomy, missional growth and ultimately on seeing as many people in our state and world come to know Jesus Christ personally as Lord and Savior.

Dr. Sullivan is retiring now and leaves a legacy that honors God. There are still challenges ahead for Baptists in this state, so the leadership void will be looming. That being said, we look back with fond memories and thankful hearts to the years behind us, ready to step forward into a future that has the same God at the helm we have always served.

So, personally, I say "Thank you" to Dr. John Sullivan and am praying for our state's search committee and State Board of Missions as we seek to discover the man God has already set aside for this honorable role. It is vital that we hear the voice of God clearly because Godly leadership matters.

Encouragement Is Needed

The Pastors Conference is a gathering prior to the annual state meeting. It is a time where emphasis on pastoral leadership and health is paramount.

B2HtcN_IIAILeLaThe pastoral ministry is not easy. Any man serving in such role could attest to this. I'm not seeking sympathy or desiring to play a victim. That's not my goal at all. However, I have discovered in my own walk, and as I talk with others, that often the pressures of pastoring seem to creep up on an individual and ultimately, wear down a man until the joy of serving and leading seems foreign.

Encouragement is a strong tonic. To hear strong, inspired, challenging and comforting words from men speaking from the battlegrounds to other soldiers in the field is vital. I often do not realize how much I need this time until I am experiencing it.

A three-day convention gathering can be tiring as well, but it is more energizing as we see pastors ready to go back home to churches who love them. Pastors are ready to lead again, to serve again, to fight battles against an unseen enemy again and ultimately recharged for that which is ahead.

With as many pastors resigning and falling into sin as we see in our nation today, this time of encouragement and re-charging must not be forsaken.

The Mission Remains

As I hear of victories in local churches and watch highlight videos of ministries and mission endeavors throughout our state, I am encouraged, but also saddened. 

Here's why - with all the "wins" the reality of a state that is growing darker in sin and further from the Truth of the Gospel is our reality. We must celebrate the victories, but also remember that the task is great and there is much to be done.

To be satisfied with where we are and to sit on our small victories is like the baseball player who settles for a single, but never makes it around the bases to home plate.

Cooperation Is More Than a Tag-Line

Staying with the baseball motif, the runner on first often needs help getting around those bases. Oh, there's the rare player who steals second, steals third and may make it home on a pitching error. Even in those cases, the extra bases are gained based on the mistakes of the opposition. In most cases, the runner gets home "with a little help from his friends." The next batters play a major role in moving the runner along.

In our world, cooperating churches are needed to push back the darkness. God's church will prevail, but we must remember that "our" churches aren't really "ours." They're His!

Therefore, we MUST COOPERATE in this great mission in order to fulfill His Great Commission. 

We will never win this state to Jesus Christ if we continue to try to do so as individuals, with small kingdom mindsets and personal glory as the goal.

We Must Not Forget What It Means to Be Baptist

In an age where denominational titles seem to be less than vogue, it is vital that we, as Baptists do not forsake our distinctives. I agree with Dr. Ted Traylor who said that churches who take "Baptist" out of their name doesn't bother him, but churches who take "Baptist" out of their identity do. There is a reason we Baptists, in our autonomy and independence, with a firm understanding and belief in the inerrant Word of God, our ordinances and celebrations of new life (baptism) and renewed life (Lord's Supper) have been blessed by God so. 

Maybe it's education. Perhaps it's just living out our faith well. Regardless, we have a great heritage and a greater God. Christian first, absolutely. Baptist as a distinctive, definitely.

Mission and Missional Are Non-Negotiables

I had a gentleman berate me about leading our church to be missional not too long ago. My response was clear - "A church that is not missional is not a church." I stand by that statement. 

However, the term "missional" is becoming too much of a buzzword lately and unfortunately, seems to be losing some of its "oomph" (you know what I mean by that, right?) Yet, living missionally is our calling. It's more than a trend.

In addition to living missionally in our community and world, we must also be "on mission" at all times. These two terms tend to overlap, but there is a distinction. The mission we must be at is global in scope. In fact, it's a Kingdom-sized mission.

While our missional expressions that lead us to the local school to help teachers and mentor children, to the public playground to do acts of service and kindness, engagements with local organizations in need of volunteers or space, etc., our "on mission" actions lead us concurrently to engage strategically with the Gospel. 

Mowing your neighbors lawn in the name of Jesus is good and right, and missional. Intentionally sharing the Gospel with your neighbor is living on mission. 

We have missionaries throughout our state and many who are being sent by local churches to the uttermost parts of the world. 

As we push back the darkness, we must continue in this journey. To be a sending church requires faith and funds and family. This was made clear this week.

Healthy Church Plants are Wins for All

Sometimes I hear people complain about all the emphasis being placed on church planting. They lament that we need to focus more on established church revitalization. 

The problem with an either/or mentality is that . . . well, we stay exactly as we are and nothing changes. 

Yes, revitalization must happen and we saw some incredible stories of churches in our state working through that. However, the clear reality for churches who are crying "Revitalize! Revitalize!" is that it will not happen if the church is unwilling to change.

Churches stuck in the "this is how we always done it" mentality are perfectly positioned and organized to do exactly what they're doing now. It's going to take more than a new coat of paint and a better website.

So, for the church ready to change. . .let's revitalize. We need you alive and healthy where God planted you.

If you won't change, hurry up and shut down or hand over the facilities to another work so an engaged church may have a chance to be birthed where you are currently located but doing nothing.

As for church planting. The key is "healthy" church planting. New works reach more people quickly. There are caveats to that statement, I understand, but the results we are seeing in Jacksonville and throughout the state are clear. When a planter is assessed and partnered with a strong, established church, Kingdom growth happens.

More Diversity Is Needed

The racial makeup of our state is continually in flux. While I cannot change the color of my skin or the heart language I speak, I know that we must seek to grow churches and partner better with those who are not lily-white and English speaking. While some may joke that Miami and south Florida is more like Latin America than the rest of America, the word I hear from pastors in those regions is that more churches are needed, more pastors are needed, more workers are needed. The fields may be "white" unto harvest elsewhere, but in south Florida and in many of our urban areas and other pockets of subcultures throughout our state, those fields are "brown" and "black" and every other shade of skin. 

It's Time to Have a Spanish Sermon

I shared with one friend that perhaps it's time that one of the key messages brought at the annual meeting is done by a Spanish speaking pastor with a heart for the Kingdom. It does not matter than I do not speak Spanish. There are many churches in our state where English is the primary language and we have guests and members who speak another heart language. Maybe it's time for the subtitles to be put on the screen in English for those of us who are mono-lingual and let the Word be broadcast in the room (and throughout the state and world since it's streamed live on the internet) in the heart language of a growing portion of this wonderful state?

There's Much Work To Do

Overall, it has been a good week, but as I reflect on this state and our Baptist partners, I know, as do others, that there is much to be done. As one pastor mentioned over the weekend "There's no place for lazy pastor in God's Kingdom." Amen to that and I add to it, "There's no place for a lazy Christian in God's Kingdom." There's much to be done and to God be the glory.

Thankfully, We Are Not Alone

I am so thankful for pastor brothers and friends in ministry. It is so encouraging to see that even though the work ahead is daunting, I am not in this battle alone. Not only do I have brothers and sisters in Christ along in this journey, I rest fully on the reality that my God is with me as well. As H.B. Charles stated this evening, "God's personal presence is also His perpetual presence."


God Hates Divorce. . .But Not the Divorcee

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"God hates divorce!" We know this. The Bible is clear. Yet, sometimes, the church and others misinterpret this to be "God hates divorcees." That's unfortunate and a misread of Scripture.

Divorce2_616However, though many have been stung by divorce, the reality and solid truth is that "God hates it." Why? Ultimately, because it pictures the dismembering of the "one-flesh" of the covenant. Marriage is an illustration of God's covenant relationship with us through Jesus Christ. Jesus is the "bridegroom." We, the church are the "bride."

Malachi speaks God's word clearly to His people in Chapter 2 of his book. It's a message that was relevant to a self-serving religious people 450 years before Christ. The timeless principle shows the relevance of God's Living Word is always there.

It is a hard truth, but a needed one. While many live their lives under the banner "God wants me to be happy, right?" the Spirit of the Lord is saying clearly, "God wants you to be holy." 

I pray we take to heart the last portion of Malachi 2:16, regardless of our human relationship status:

So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless. Malachi 2:16b (ESV)


Redemption Stories: Christopher, Angela & Leon Yuan

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Redemption christopher family emailWhat many would consider their worst nightmare has become a reality for Christopher Yuan. While attending dental school, he began living promiscuously as a gay man and experimenting with illicit drugs. Within a few years, he was expelled from dental school, imprisoned for drug dealing and discovered that he was HIV positive.

But God has turned his nightmare into an exciting and inspiring story of redemption, grace and transformation. Christopher has an understanding heart for and a desire to minister to those working through issues of sexuality and to those living with HIV/AIDS. He speaks locally and internationally to youth, on college campuses, in churches and in prisons.

Christopher graduated from Moody Bible Institute in 2005 and Wheaton College Graduate School in 2007 with a Master of Arts in Biblical Exegesis and is currently pursuing a doctorate of ministry at Bethel Seminary. He now teaches at Moody while continuing his speaking ministry which has reached four continents around the world. (biography information taken from www.christopheryuan.com)

Christopher, along with his parents Leon and Angela, shared their story with our church on Sunday, September 29. It's a powerfully, moving story. Click the audio link at the top of this post to listen to their account.

We also encourage you to read the Yuans' story in their book Out of a Far Country: A Gay Son's Journey to God, A Broken Mother's Search for Hope.


Redemption Stories: He Calls Me Son

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I was reminded last Tuesday while sitting in a hotel room in Toronto about my name. As I think of redemption stories and the messages that are being shared this month, God reminded me of my prodigal heart. 

I was sitting in the hotel room searching YouTube for an old song I had first heard in the early 1990s. The song "When God Ran" is a narrative of the prodigal son account in Scripture (Luke 15) from the perspective of the son who ran away. I remember Benny Hester's version of this song years ago being played over and again on a Christian radio station in the Dallas/Fort Worth area (KLTY). 

I found a few versions on YouTube, but it was this live recording by Phillips, Craig and Dean that really hit me hard. When Dan Dean sang the phrase "He called me son" I lost it. At that moment, God reminded me of my name. As a child of his, my sins were placed upon His Son, Jesus Christ. When Christ died on the cross, he took my place, he took all the false labels and lies that that I owned, as well as the sin I had and would ever commit. He took it and gave me a name - child of God. Son.

Here's the song I reference. I still tear up when I think of the immense power of the name.

 

 


Redemption Stories: We're All Prodigals

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The story of the prodigal son as described in Luke 15 should be shared regularly. . .as in very, very often. This story is the Gospel encapuslated. A story of rebellion and sin, fear, hopelessness, frustration, repentance, forgiveness and joy.

It's powerful and though a popular story, it should be noted that we all, at some level, are prodigals.

Our story, much like the son in the Scriptures, is hinged on finding our verse 17 (But when he came to himself. . .)

Redemption stories app
Reminds me of an old song by Benny Hester. . .

 


God Interrupted Our Worship Service

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It was incredible. A moment I have prayed about for years. Not a disruption, really, but an acknowledgement that when we say we are here for Him, and mean it, God moves greatly.

Yesterday's message was one of pointed realization. As Paul reminded the church in 1 Corinthians 15, so too did God remind us yesterday that as followers of Christ, we often forget that which we used to be. We have forgotten the rescue and thereby live our lives as if God's love and grace and mercy is deserved.

Paul speaks clearly here in the chapter, reminding the ancient Corinthians, as well as believers for centuries, that Christ died, was buried, rose again, appeared to many and called out the church, all in accordance with the Scriptures.

This was God's plan.

RescueAbout five minutes into the sermon yesterday, I stated that there were two groups of people in the building. One group had taken a small step of curious faith by attending, but have never stepped into the Story God has for them. In other words, they are still lost, separated from God because of their lack of surrender to Him.

I felt led to address this and describe how the Enemy would do everything he could to keep them from taking that step. Then (to be honest - I don't believe I really expected an answer) I said, "Is there anyone here ready to step into this Story and surrender to Christ?"

I looked up to the balcony and a young man named Chris stood up.

It took just a moment for me to realize he wasn't getting up to go to the restroom. He was responding to the call. I asked "Are you ready?" He replied "Yes!"

I encouraged him to come down right then and he did. The congregation sat in awe-filled silence. I saw many whose eyes were open widely, just as wide as their mouths as their jaws dropped. It was apparent - many members of this church had never experienced anything quite like this. God was in the room and He was moving.

Chris came down. I prayed with him as hundreds watched. I introduced him to Marshall Walker, one of our deacons and Marshall and he went to our counseling area for prayer and affirmation.

I looked to the congregation and said, "Most of you didn't know someone could respond to an invitation to come to Christ unless it was at the end of the service and soft piano music was being played." There was a chuckle, partnered with the realization that the statement was true.

God interruped our service yesterday.

Well, maybe more accurately, we actually decided to follow His lead yesterday. He had an order of worship already planned. It was good. It was right. It was holy.

The message continued to the church members and those who have previously come to Christ. The reality was clear - many of us have forgotten about the Gospel. We have forgotten about our rescue. It's evident in the silence we have when engaging others in our family, workplace, neighborhood and community that we have forgotten. How is this so? There's no logical reason for keeping the rescue plan (God's plan for our salvation through Christ's death, burial and resurrection) to ourselves.

We have spiritual dementia.

The sad reality is that a side effect of this spiritual dementia is our apparent lack of love for others who are still enslaved. Are we basically saying "Just go to hell?

May we remember.

It's that important.

May we share.

It's that vital.

Rescue is available. We don't have to remain enslaved.

Yesterday, Chris was rescued. We were invited to see it happen.

 


Jesus Christ - God's "Amen" to the Gospel

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Sunday's message is attached. The primary passage is 1 Corinthians 14. Some highlight points:

  • Amen1I rather speak five words you can understand than thousands in a tongue that you cannot. (1 Corinthians 14:19)
  • Most believers have the wrong idea of what the gift of prophecy is.
  • Spirituality is increasing in our culture. . .just not Christian spirituality.
  • Spirituality apart from Christ is empty.
  • Jacksonville is the #77 Post-Christian city in America. If we really work at it and continue doing what we're doing, we can move up to #50, I'm sure. (sarcasm)
  • The Word is to proclaimed, preached, taught and prophesied.
  • Worship can be quiet, loud, exciting, reverent, but must always be orderly and holy.
  • "Amen" is not an "attaboy" for the preacher.
  • Jesus is God's "Amen" to the Gospel.
  • Some people are members of the church, but never engage and haven't been in years.
  • These "members" keep their names on the roll just to get a free venue for funerals and weddings.
  • "Amen" is "Yes!"
  • You need an "Amen" in your life.

They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love (But What Does That Look Like?)

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In 1 Corinthians, chapter 13 is perhaps the most widely known section. These words are read at weddings often and carry a sense of awe and honor due to the subject matter - love.

1Corinthians13-4-7The subject, however, is not randomly floating alone in the book waiting for the next wedding to come around so it can be read aloud once more. This “love chapter” falls on the heels of an affirmation by God that as a church, unity is to be the norm. Unity among Christ followers is impossible apart from love. Therefore, an accurate definition of the word is essential.

Christianity apart from love, isn’t true Christianity.

Christianity without love is a contradiction.

There are many, many verses in Scripture that touch on this concept of love. Love – that which we all know and seek, but sometimes have a hard time describing and fully understanding.

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. John 12:24-25 (ESV)

Then there’s this most famous verse that relates to love.

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16 (ESV)

Love seems to be connected to death at some level. We don’t like to think about this, but it’s here in black (or red) and white.

“Whoever loves his life loses it. . .”

“For God so loved the world, that He gave. . .”

Then we see Paul’s listing of what love looks like.

  • Love is patient - The word used here “makrothymia” means having the capacity to be wronged and not retaliate. According to all we have read in the previous chapters, there were many members who had been wronged (lawsuits, fights, etc.) How one responds when wronged is a picture of a person’s heart and walk with Christ.
  • Love is kind
  • Love does not envy
  • Love does not boast - Envy and boasting speak of our tendency to be prideful. There’s no room in a Christ-followers life for pride and love. The word for pride appears seven times in the New Testament and six of those are in this letter to the Corinthian church. However, they did not have a monopoly on pride.
  • Love is not arrogant
  • Love is not rude
  • Love doesn’t insist on having one’s own way
  • Love is not irritable - The Greek word here means more than just having a poor disposition. It also refers to the keeping of a list of wrongdoing.
  • Love is not resentful
  • Love does not rejoice when wrongs are done
  • Love rejoices in truth
  • Love bears all things
  • Love believes all things
  • Love hopes all things
  • Love endures all things
  • Love never ends

The four beginning with "love bears all things" are challenging. Bears, believes, hopes and endures all things. What does this mean? Does this mean that we are to believe everything we hear because we love? No. It can’t. We live in a world where lies abound. The Father of Lies is at work all around us. What then?

Look at these statements as bookends – Bears and Endures speaks of our relationship with other people. The inner two – Believes and Hopes – speaks of our responsibility to the Lord. They echo the triad of faith, hope and love stated at the close of the passage.

With the pairing of bears/endures and believes/hopes defined, check out this paraphrase of the passage to perhaps better explain it:

Love is not for the faint of heart. It is a hard road. Whenever you hear the call to patience (v.4) you know it will be hard—but love is a very good road. So let me say it again: you will bear with and endure relationships in which you feel unloved. Expect this to happen in the church. Expect this to happen even in the home! And when it does you will be tempted to be angry and resentful. But the way of Christ and him crucified is best. He bore with us and endured with us when he was rejected, and his good plan is that we be given the same opportunity. How will you bear and endure? You will do so by believing and hoping—in Jesus alone. If you are believing and hoping in the other person, love will fall flat, but if your trust is sequestered in Jesus Christ, you will have power to love that you never anticipated was possible.

Love ultimately is selfless. Self must die to truly love. So, y0u see, love is connected to death in this way.