A thinking message or an altar call?

Last week I had the opportunity to speak at the chapel of a local Christian school. I spoke on one of my favorite passages, Mark 9, explaining that Jesus can do something with our unbelief when we bring it to him. Before the chapel started, the bloke in charge asked me if there would be an “altar call” or if I was planning on “leaving them something to think about?” An altar call or a thinking message…
Who knew those were my two options?
Instead of explaining my take on altar calls, I politely (maybe I’ll get asked back) said, “It will be a ‘thinking message.'”
I won’t go into my thoughts on the 19th century invention of the altar call, as I’ve already done so here. But I do want to explore the question this man asked.
Should a sermon or a talk leave people with something to think about or should it call them to action? I think the answer is probably a qualified “yes.”
1.) Thinking. Of course, leave it to a Presbyterian to affirm the thinking part of a sermon…But people do need to understand what the passage in context really says, what it means, and why believing that passage makes a practical difference in life. Ideally, I want folks leaving a sermon thinking more and more about the passage, how it points us to the gospel, and how our lives will change because we’ve personally embraced that truth. You never want a, “Well now I know all there is to know about that passage and how it relates to Jesus and how I’ve already changed….” If the roots keep getting deeper, the fruit will become that much more evident.
2.) Response. One of my favorite pastors, and former professor Steve Brown, always (I think he still does) concludes his sermons with “you think about that.” He doesn’t mean for you to simply think, but to respond to the gospel. A good sermon always calls for some response. Now perhaps that response is one that no one sees. Perhaps it is a call to awe and wonder at the majesty of God. That is still a legitimate response, and one that is quite necessary when preachers like myself can emphasize God’s immanence at the expense of His transcendence. Now I can call people to come down an aisle and commit to being more in awe of God, or I can preach about His faithful character and say something like, “Now doesn’t this move us to awe?” I choose the latter.
Our sermon passage yesterday was on Psalm 92, which is a thanksgiving psalm. The main application Barret left us with was to make sure we focus on the giver more than the gift. No one may necessarily see that, but if by faith we respond, folks will eventually see a difference. They will never see us become angry if the building isn’t being used exactly as we want it. 
Sometimes the response to a sermon may appear more active. It may mean that after you understand the “why,” you feel the need to respond by seeking forgiveness from someone you have wronged. It might mean that you spend time with your spouse next Friday night. It might mean that as a result of believing the gospel, you consider tithing, or supporting a missionary. It could mean that you become part of a church plant or stay at your existing church.  Both are active responses. You don’t need to “come on down” in order to respond. 
But neither should you simply think about what’s been said and conclude with, “That was a good sermon. I liked it.” 

A good sermon challenges the head, the heart, and the hands. However, the preacher may emphasize a response aimed at one of these areas more than the other.

Reflections on Winter Jam

Several weeks ago, because I thought that we needed more adults, I attended the Winter Jam concert  in Charleston with the Redeemer youth. We had a great time hearing from a variety of different Christian bands-some of which I had actually seen in high school and college. So that part was a stroll down memory lane for me. I had a blast with those and really enjoyed the craziness of the hard rock band Skillet.
Let me give you my synopsis of the highs and lows of the concert…
High parent to student ratio. Really high. That is a good thing. Kids need adults in their lives. Lots of them.
The place was absolutely packed. It was encouraging to see the number of folks in WV (and some from farther away) who came out to hear bands that they most likely listen to during the week. Because most youth haven’t developed a very strong filter yet, I”m glad that they are listening to Christian music.
In addition, I was encouraged by bands trying to reach kids I can’t, and give them something to listen to that is different that what they are normally offered. I was also encouraged how deft they were at contextualizing the Christian faith into the world of these students. You don’t have to wear skinny jeans and be hip to be a Christian. However, you can be. I’ll not be wearing skinny jeans. Ever. But when youth see clean cut, khaki pants/jeans wearing pastors and parents, we need to make sure that they don’t have to look like us either. 
The bands honored Jesus. The last band, a hard rock band called Skillet, talked a good bit about Jesus. Now when they sang, I couldn’t really tell what they were singing. But when the lead singer talked, he did talk about Jesus. That was refreshing.
While I appreciated that there was a gospel presentation, and I appreciated that there was a call to repentance and faith, I didn’t so much subscribe to the methodology of having everyone say the magic “sinner’s prayer.” We were ALL instructed to close our eyes and say after him the magic prayer-no matter how many times we’d already said it (and he even hinted that he’d “come forward” a few times, though those trips didn’t mean anything-which should tell us something!). Then by virtue of everyone saying that prayer, we should expect a few conversions or re-dedications or something. Kind of weird. Weird but consistent with evangelicalism.
There really isn’t a magic sinners prayer that you can say, where you are “spiritually tasered,” and then transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light (Col 1:12-13).
One band talked about having “church” together without actually going to church. I can understand that it may be hard to attend worship regularly when you are hitting up so many cities in so short a time. And if you can’t gather together with an assembly of believers, then getting together is the next best thing. But it is not “having church.” Hanging out with your buddies and the bible is not really the picture of church we see in the bible. 
Many Christians don’t have a very good picture of the church and so think they can just as equally worship God by going surfing, sleeping, skiing, or doing family time. Sometimes these venues (though I don’t think this one did) can become “church” for that week. It takes an effort to express that while this concert IS good, it is NOT a good replacement for regular corporate worship. I’m very thankful for bands like Casting Crowns that clearly stated this when I saw them.
Finally, it was a bit weird-though not inherently wrong-to take up an offering. They “passed the hat” around and people were asked give to this ministry. Since the concert was only 10 dollars, it didn’t covered all of the production costs, of which Skillet’s pyro-technicians had to have received 95%.
I would have more happily paid 15 dollars and not seen the hat. Again, just a bit different and weird-not wrong. I think more people are reached by church planting then concerts, so that’s who’s next in line for my money.

All in all, a good experience though and am glad I went. While I don’t listen to contemporary Christian music, live music is tough to beat.