Church Together 2013 the reluctant review

There are two reasons if you’re a Christian why you won’t like this post. So I thought before I begin I’d try and address each of them.

Firstly I believe that discernment plays an important part in being a healthy Christian. As I reflected on my experience at Church Together and heard many people heap unqualified praise on the event, I couldn’t help but think there is lack of “biblical” discernment in many church circles. To be fair I think this is for good reason. Generally we don’t like to disagree with other Christians. People don’t like to rock the boat. People don’t like to look “judgmental” and harsh. The message that many Christians are taught about Jesus and the Bible is often an overly positive one which leaves little space for discernment, criticism, hell, and other less palatable doctrines.

The problem is that the Bible speaks of all these very things. Testing things (1 Thessalonians 5) holding on to what is good, encouraging others and refuting those who oppose (Titus 1). In 2 Timothy 4 church leaders are called to correct rebuke and encourage. Rebuking is mentioned in Titus 1 and 2.  In 1 Tim 4 we are also encouraged to watch life and doctrine closely. Discernment is commended in Philippians 1:10.

It’s often lost on Christians just how many of Paul’s letters were written to correct false teaching. You can see this in 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, and Philippians, Colossians. That’s before we get to the many serious warnings about false teaching that are also peppered through the Old Testament and biographies of Jesus.

It’s in this spirit and context that I want you to hear what I have to say. It’s ok to say a particular doctrine is wrong, it’s ok to disagree with other Christians, it’s ok to say something is false teaching, it’s ok to say something isn’t clear or unhelpful. It’s important to be open, honest and upfront about differences. As I have argued before this is what true tolerance is. I believe this can be done well and in the right spirit, thoughtfully and lovingly. It’s for this reason that I believe that criticism of Church Together is ok*.

The second thing you might not agree with me on, is how a “sermon” is defined. You can substitute the word “message” or “homily”` if you’re old school. I think generally in most church circles this is rarely defined and often an assumed definition. In the circles I move in usually a passage from the Bible is expounded and taught. The emphasis is on teaching people and helping them understand the text and seeing how to apply it to their lives. Locate, explain, illustrate, apply is a helpful summary. In other words the text itself drives the sermon. For brevity's sake I’ll leave the definition at that

The more Pentecostal understanding of a sermon is different. In my experience, focus is not on a particular verse or passage but usually a theme. Often these are themes that come up in the Bible. Almost all Pentecostal sermons I’ve heard don’t really seem to follow a set formula or structure and some are better with their use of the Bible than others. Now my point here is not to define what a sermon is, but for you to understand that what was “preached” at Church Together, would not fit either my, or a Pentecostal definition of a sermon. In fact I wouldn't even call it a good motivational talk but I’ll get to that later.

The Good
My purpose for visiting Church Together wasn’t to write a review. Those who know me personally, will know that I’m passionate about improving the music and the “church gathering” experience for our church on a Sunday. It was in this spirit that I went along, hoping to learn how to run tighter music and have MCing that rocked. Many of the non-Pentecostal churches I have attended are very sloppy with this kind of stuff. Conversely many of the Pentecostal churches I have visited do this very well. And boy, they delivered.

The music was excellent. All the music was live, no room for lip syncing here. I hadn’t heard most of the songs, but the lyrics were more thoughtful, dare I say theological, most unlike the Hillsong music of old. The tunes were catchy and musicians built up tension skillfully, pulling back quietly in other parts. It was very, very well done. The musicians were well dressed and the stage was free of mess and clutter. The musicians were confident and the music was loud, something I think in my circles we could certainly do with more of. There wasn’t too much clapping and jumping around, and the vibe was energetic rather than frenzied. While I’m sure this is not everyone's cup of tea, it was overall, very well done.

The Sermon
Just before 6pm the main speaker Lisa McInnes-Smith bounded on stage. “Shake hands with he person next to you!” she exclaimed. “Are you fun to live with?” “Interactions are important, smile! Treat people well! Smile look someone in the eye!”

Lisa according to the bio on the event site boasts “Lisa is recognised among the top inspirational speakers in the church and in the corporate world.” and been inducted “International Speaker Hall of Fame, the first person living outside of North America to achieve this recognition”. The promise was of a “real and relevant message”.

Glancing over the page and half of typed notes I took, it is very hard to work out what her message actually was. I think the main point of her “sermon” was “words”. “Words have the ability to bring life but also cut people down... I have been a victim of those words my eye was born closed... people called me ugly, people teased me with words... Life's not fair”. “We need to use labels that lift people up... You're smart. I'm smart. Look at the words you speak over your life.” All of these things she spoke clearly and with passion and conviction.

She also spoke about bad words, that go out of you coming back around to hurt you “like a boomerang”. Someone beside me mentioned that sounded a lot more like Karma than Christianity. In passing she encouraged us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, I think alluding to Romans 12, but didn’t really apply or explain this verse properly. Many of the things she talked about were good and helpful in and of themselves...  and while some of her ideas and concepts could be found in the Bible, she only ever really referred to it in passing. Many things she said would have been more at home in a psychology lecture.

Drawing on her background as a sports psychologist she said we ought remove all criticism from our speech. She told us how when she addressed sporting teams they weren’t permitted to be critical for a whole week. We should instead focus on what is good about people. I have some sympathy for this. At times I know I’m too critical (Don’t worry the irony of this critique is not lost on me). The impact and authority of this was then lost as she failed to tie the idea to any Biblical passage.

As she continued, my mind started going haywire trying to find categories to understand what she was talking about. I tried really hard to understand what she was saying and how it related to Jesus. Maybe this was just a motivational speech with words like Jesus, God and the Bible thrown in? Only I didn’t feel motivated. I just felt confused. Maybe she felt it too because she got everyone to their feet then asking them to squat till they felt pain in their thighs. I’m not sure how this fitted with message maybe something about pain and agony. I’m honestly not sure.

It would reactive to label what she said “false teaching”. To the best of my knowledge I don’t think she said anything that was blatantly “false”, but then I couldn’t say she explained the gospel either. It seemed ironic, that for all the talk of “words” she had little regard for clear communication and structure in her "sermon".

After around fifty minutes she stepped down. The MC, iPad in hand, then proceeded to read Romans 8 at length. He spoke of Jesus death and it’s role and function. At this point in the evening it was most welcome. It was the clearest explanation of the Christian message I heard all evening, however I wondered if the MC was tying to make for the lack of exposition and clear articulation of the Christian message in the sermon. The evening finally concluded with the inevitable alter-call to which fifty or so people responded.

Reflecting on the experience, by every measure I can think of her “message” failed. I’ve heard much better messages from other Pentecostal preachers here in Hobart. In fact I couldn’t even describe what I heard as a good motivational speech, I’ve heard better at local footy matches. If the gospel was there in her message, it wasn’t clear, at least not to me and one other person.

There were other minor things that I didn’t like about the evening, but I’ll leave them to one side for now as my original intent wasn’t to critique the event. I can’t help but think, if the preaching had been as clear, and engaging as the singing, my assessment wouldn’t have needed qualification... and my review turn into a critique.

*For the sake of brevity an eloquent and extended argument on why I agree public criticism is over here.



Stuart T. Rochester said... 7/24/2013 9:32 am  

Wouldn’t it be good if everyone could analyse so clearly what happens in church? I agree wholeheartedly that we need to be discerning. I’m not so sure that I’d want to define the ‘sermon’ so rigorously. Lisa is obviously not a Bible teacher, and certainly not a scripture expositor, but I think she exercises her evident gift in helping people to see life from a Christian perspective. We often don’t recognize the implications of ‘words’ we hear and use, and I think she encouraged us to be aware of some of these. As a (sometimes) public speaker I particularly appreciated some of the techniques (humour, physical activity, interaction with fellow listeners) she used to keep her audience awake and engaged, despite my personal uncomfortability with some of these. She was certainly entertaining, but her themes were seriously relevant, authentic and deeply true. I think her message would have impacted many people and been transformative for them.

Chris Bowditch said... 7/24/2013 11:02 am  

The only thing I can remember from her talk was that afterwards I described her talk as 'fascinating'

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