Last week we spent the latter half of the week at a conference called “Equip”, put on by NCMI. These conferences have taken place in many countries around the globe over the past few decades, and there is a yearly one in South Africa. This Equip was held in Hillcrest, about 10 minutes from our house without traffic and construction (note: there never was a time without traffic and construction).
About 1000 pastors, lay leaders, and lay people gathered for worship and to listen to speakers. Here are my top seven observations from the conference:
1) Tim Hughes.
I now know who he is. I’ve seen his name in songbooks and heard people talking about him – now I’ve seen and heard him live. He wrote “Here I Am to Worship”, along with other songs. He leads a worship band at Holy Trinity Brompton, UK – which is where the Alpha course comes from.
At one point he encouraged everyone to sing a new song to God – many in the gathering started singing the song he and the band just sang. So he came to the mic again, and said to sing a new song, your own song. There was mumbling and random singing for a few minutes – it was a very eerie sound to hear 1000+ people singing their own song. Then he came back to the microphone and sang what I can only guess is a song he wrote on the spot. It’s four lines long, and the rest of the band seemed to have no idea what was going on. Even though I wrote all the words to the song down, I can’t find it anywhere online. Either Google is broken, or it was a new song. Here it is below:
“Lead us up the mountain,
Lead us up the mountain,
High into your presence,
Where your glory shines.”
2) Volume is important to me.
For me, higher volume does not encourage me to worship. In fact, if music or speaking is too loud I can’t worship and can’t think. I’ve talked with some people after the conference, and some have said that too loud isn’t good, and others have said that they like it because then people can’t hear them sing. I put earplugs in, and could still hear everything the bands played. I definitely think there is a “too loud” – and I don’t mind at all when my neighbor sings off-key (it may be because I probably am, too). (Note: Tim Hughes & Co had their sound dialed in perfectly.)
3) White males.
The majority of speakers at the conference were white males, most of whom were over 40. Of the seventeen speakers I counted (including panelists) four were women (three white, one black). Of the thirteen male speakers, eleven were white. In a country where 90% of the population is black, I expected and wanted to hear from more black pastors/speakers. I also expected and wanted to hear from more women and their efforts in ministry (of the four female speakers, three were on the same panel, talking about what it is like to be pastor’s wives, not about ministry). All of the “hosts” – those introducing speakers – were white males as well.
4) Singular verses.
One thing I noticed at the conference is that many speakers would pull out single verses to support their point. Here’s an example: One speaker talked about increasing faith by referencing Mark 10:46, Hebrews 11:6, Mark 11:24, and Matthew 21:43 (the verses are below, in order):
“Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means “son of Timaeus”), was sitting by the roadside begging.”
“And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”
“Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
“Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.”
This produces an instant cringe-factor for me – using singular verses means they are taken out of their context, and have a greater chance of being used to mean whatever the speaker wants and not what they say in their original context. And I have no idea what this speaker was trying to communicate by linking these verses together.
5) The future.
Everyone was interested in it. “Moving forward”, “Dream bigger”, “We’ve got to move”, “Young people have a critical role to play”, “What will happen in the next 20 years”, and finally, “There’s no future in our past.”
It was this last one that stuck out to me the most.
“There is no future in our past.”
My immediate thought was – “We have a future because of our past.”
He continued by saying the past is over, it’s done, at points it has failed, at others it has been ok – but it is over and done and we now live into and for the future and shouldn’t look to our past again.
That may work for some people (and may tie in with point 7 below), but it doesn’t work for me. The past gave us our future – and frankly, many of the things we do now, and even the “simplistic” and “contemporary” worship services we do now are simply a contextualization of something that happened tens or hundreds of years ago.
I just can’t agree with the speaker that there is no future in our past. Only looking to the past is not healthy in life, nor in the life of the Church. We need both, I think – one foot rooted in the past and one stepping into the future.
6) The floor.
I love sitting on the floor – Equip convinced me again that I much prefer the floor to chairs.
What is one of the keys to growing the church, to increasing numbers and depth of devotion? Play to people’s hopes.
This is the most striking aspect that I observed at the conference- never explicitly said but hinted at throughout. I kept trying to figure out why people were so transfixed with every new speaker, when I was only engaged by a few. Then, upon reflecting on this question, it dawned on me; all the speakers played to people’s hopes – hopes for physical healing, larger congregations, deeper faith, etc…
This can be done in a negative way – and it often is. Churches and other groups figure out what people want (money, stuff, love, etc), and promise them something, often with just a small input for a larger output.
I think this is one of the keys to this whole preaching business. Preachers must play to people’s hopes, desires, wants, needs. Not in a bad way, of course. By “playing” I mean connecting. How do you get someone to listen to you? Talk about things important to them. Connect.
What things are important to people? Kids, Family, Housing, Food, Future, School, Employment, Love, Sports, Relaxation, Security, Community, Success, Organization, Health, Adventure, Feeling Valued, etc (not all for all people, of course).
Next, what are peoples’ hopes for these things? Some might be: Healthy Kids, Quality Food, Secure Future, Affordable Housing, etc.
If we can figure out what is important to people, and what they hope for from these important things, then we can speak their language. If we can speak people’s language, we can walk alongside them, we can recognize what they experience and what they hope for.
I have to wonder if part of the reason many people leave (or slowly stop going to) church is not because they don’t believe what the church believes, but because they are receiving their hope or a recognition of their hope from somewhere else. The church may give or recognize some hope, but the society, or another church, or another organization, plays better to their hopes, dreams, desires, and needs than the church does. I don’t have any research on that – it’s just a thought. If people received their hope from church, if people at church recognized what they needed and what their desires were, would people come clamoring to church?
In church communities I’ve been a part of where the church focuses on the needs and dreams and desires of the people, people want to be there. It may be anecdotal, or it may be a trend.
So I think this “playing to people’s hopes” for churches has two parts to it:
1) there must be connection between people’s real lives and what the church talks about.
I think someone can preach without connecting to people’s hopes on a conscious level. But I think that if we do make these connections, then we make it easier for people to trust, to care, to come back, to listen. I don’t think this is a game, even though I’ve used the “playing” language. I think it is very serious stuff.
2) the church must offer some sort of hope in those situations, some actualization of their dream, some fulfillment of their need or desire, or at the very least, recognition.
I think the Church often does a pretty good job of the first one – at churches we can “hook” people with food, community, events, etc. But I think we struggle with the second one. How do we do it?
We can give people good programs, kid’s ministry, choir, elder activities, and such. But that’s not the hope of the church.
The Church achieves the second one by recognizing and stating that there is brokenness in the world, and that God recognized that, too, and came to Earth and lived and died among us. The hope the Church must offer is that the one who created everything realizes what we humans are going through and cares. That’s the hope we have. I think we struggle in sharing our hope, sometimes.
(As a personal aside, I have been sitting here for two hours now trying to come up with a longer explanation, one that started with the church and explored that and then moved on to God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit. But finally it has clicked in my mind today that the Church and God cannot be separated in that sentence, for God works through the Church to make God known, and the Church only exists because of God. And so the two must be in the same sentence, not separated by paragraphs of my babbling.)
And if the hope that God cares what’s going on to us doesn’t work with people, we can offer people the hope that we do care, and that we will walk alongside them, continually showing them we believe God cares, and let the Spirit work in their lives along the way.
If we can show people that we, in the Church, recognize that we know people are constantly searching and can’t find the panacea for their troubles – eventually we can point them to God, who understands even better than we ever will.
The gospel message – that God loves us and came and died and rose so we can be in relationship with God – gives us lasting hope. This message acknowledges that what we experience now is not perfect, but that there is hope in an imperfect world.
In order to catch people’s attention, we have to pay attention to them. We have to learn what they find important, and what their hopes are for these things. And then we have to recognize that the world isn’t perfect, and speak our hope in Jesus into their lives.
(I tried to make it more complicated than that with hundreds of extra words of babbling. I don’t think it is.)
There it is – the top seven things I took from the conference.
I’m in the midst of looking at the names and descriptions of God, descriptions of people, and action words used in the songs at the conference. Preaching doesn’t just happen in the sermon, but in all aspects of worship and daily life. How we portray God in songs shows a lot about theology, and it sometimes delivers messages a whole lot easier than a preacher speaking for 10, 25, or 40 minutes. So I’m diving into that – I’ll report as soon as I’ve finished.