Some might justifiably argue that this article should have preceded the previous one (“You’ll Never Know if You’ve Arrived if You Don’t Know Where You Are Going”). You might ask, “How can you know where your congregation should be in a year if you don’t know the values that determine such decisions?” After all, all decisions reflect the values of the decision maker, whether that’s an individual or a congregation.
For example, our facility was a large box store with ample parking at a major intersection. It was a magnet which drew Friday night rendezvous of high school students. As a rule, we inherited the leftovers from whichever fast-food stores were frequented that night. So, one Friday evening, our introverted sixty-year-old facilities manager waited for the students to arrive and went to speak with them. His speech was brief and to the point: “We love having you hang out on our lot. However, this all has to be cleaned up before Sunday morning. So, I’ve put a trash can over near the building, and if you don’t mind, please just put your trash in the receptacle and we’ll be ready for Sunday. Enjoy your evening.”
That decision reflected not only his, but the congregation’s values. Everyone, from staff to parishioner, knows we long for the next generation to know Christ. A little trash is a small price to pay for the privilege of building good relations. A winsome request to throw your own trash away reflected the kindness of Jesus and caught the students off-guard, who had figured they were about to be run off our lot. His decision was driven by clearly articulated values.
The Influence of Values Over Decisions
What I’m about to say concerning the intersection of preaching and values proceeds from the assumption that we accept the dictum, “Our values determine our decisions.” And from the hope that preachers and their church leaders have ongoing serious discussions about what values we hope to cultivate within our congregations.
Listen to people’s comments/criticisms, read the minutes from the board/elders’ meetings, watch the reactions of the congregation to change, listen to the preacher’s messages—these are but some of the means of determining what values drive a congregation. What we learn is a congregational worldview, a congregational culture. Although it is made up of the worldviews of many individuals, never be fooled into thinking there is not a congregational culture that reflects the history, the experiences, the teaching, and the personality of those who made up that congregation in the past.
Remember also that a worldview that dictates how a farmer farms or how a businesswoman does business may well be left in the office or in the field when it comes to church decisions. A farmer who thrives on the newest hybrids, equipment, or techniques on the farm may turn out to be the most rigid of all when it comes to the life of the church.
“Listen to people’s comments/criticisms, read the minutes from the board/elders’ meetings, watch the reactions of the congregation to change, listen to the preacher’s messages—these are but some of the means of determining what values drive a congregation.”
This assumption must undergird everything that follows: paradigms (the lenses through which we see the world) are pervasive, pernicious, and persistent. Facts don’t always matter (Galileo was considered a heretic despite the evidence that the earth circles the sun). The only means of changing a culture is to enable people to see alternatives which make more sense of their reality than what they’ve previously thought. We subtly soften the edges of the paradigm without direct attack. Yet we should still have honest conversations when needed and when opportunities arise.
Preaching Core Values
In the big-picture sense, preachers should deliver a series of sermons addressing the congregation’s core values at least once every two-to-three years. In between those focused series, individual core values should be intentionally addressed (and articulated) as they arise in the flow of the annual preaching plan.
From a practical, very specific, perspective, the following sermonic tools represent a few means of articulating values for the congregation. In no particular order . . .
Make arresting comments (often done with humor)
Shortly after finishing our new lobby, I brought a cup of coffee with me to the pulpit and asked if someone would mind taking it out and spilling it on the new carpet. Once the shock was replaced by laughter, I explained that our values as a church included people above property.
Use subtle, but obvious, illustrations
With a picture on our screen of Dr. Ben Carson standing behind his seated mother, I told the story of the then illiterate woman forcing Ben and his brother to read two books a week and marking them with a red pen as if she had corrected them. I talked briefly about Carson’s career as the youngest head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University Hospital. Although I never mentioned his ethnicity, the value that we believe there should be no discrimination in the kingdom was clear.
Given our location on the busiest street in town, we were often asked for permission to hold events on our parking lot. For a few years, the one event we allowed was the annual Right to Life silent protest of abortion. Then we changed our minds. I was accosted by a Right to Life leader at the next minister’s luncheon. I later shared the story with the congregation that we’d had a change of perspective. While we were still staunch supporters of Right to Life (lots of evidence given), we wanted people to embrace that the church was a safe place for anyone. We felt if a woman who’d had an abortion, a doctor who’d performed an abortion, a husband/parent/boyfriend who’d advocated an abortion had driven by during the march, they would conclude just the opposite—they would believe they weren’t welcome. So, no march on our property.
Tell encouraging stories
On a regular basis, we reminded the younger generation of all the sacrifices our senior saints had made on their behalf. We bragged on our seniors about their adopting a more contemporary worship, allowing the kids to really use the building, supporting the move in the ministry plan to spend more money on children’s ministry than on adults, and other sacrifices. Two values were cultivated: gratitude for the sacrifices of others and that my personal preferences are not as valuable as the kingdom values we embrace.
“Two values were cultivated: gratitude for the sacrifices of others and that my personal preferences are not as valuable as the kingdom values we embrace.
Highlight the good the congregation does (without bragging)
When the local soup kitchen/food pantry finally found a permanent location and began to remodel, they divided the space into zones and asked for churches and organizations to adopt (pay for) a space. We adopted a portion of the kitchen they estimated would require $40,000 to complete. We made Horizons, the agency involved, the prime recipient of our Christmas offering. We reinforced the values of generosity and caring for the disenfranchised by showing a video of our staff member in charge of social outreach presenting a check to the director for $94,000.
These and many more means can be used to cultivate our primary value: “Your Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.” These means can be included in a sermon focusing on an appropriate text and theme, or used as a stand-alone feature of worship. As a preacher, you usually use only one main idea in a sermon, but when appropriate, you may cluster two or three of these approaches in the same message.
Some Things to Avoid
There are, of course, some “watch outs” to avoid. These actions undermine the very values we are trying to cultivate. A harsh (angry) tone of voice totally defeats any attempt at cultivating a love for people. Inappropriate eye-rolls as you tell stories, or as someone else does and you’re still visible, communicate disdain or disagreement rather than support for the value being articulated.
Sarcasm, irony, and other types of humor often backfire. Each of these rhetorical devices has their place, but used inappropriately, they will undermine the preacher’s sincerity and cause listeners to question the validity of the value being presented.
Scolding and berating are anathema to preaching in general. In themselves they reflect the values that drive the preacher. Their sense of superiority, arrogance, and lack of sensitivity toward others prevent listeners from hearing what’s being espoused.
“Preaching driven by appropriate core values develops those values in our listeners.”
Preaching driven by appropriate core values develops those values in our listeners. Soon they don’t have to be told how to act, what attitude to assume, or when to feel a certain way. They will no longer question decisions made by leaders they’ve come to trust. They will have adopted a lens for seeing the world that reflects the nature of Jesus and the heart of the congregation.