I almost sent Shane Hipps an angry email a couple weeks ago.
I’ve been listening to Hipps’ sermons via Podcast for several years now, you see, and become a big fan of his in the process. But on Sept. 2, he dropped a bomb on me when he announced he’s hanging up his Sunday morning microphone.
And for what? To write books and go on lecture tours? Boo-urns!
Hipps served as a teaching pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan – the church founded in 1999 by Rob Bell.
Several years ago, I was in the market for new preachers’ sermons to listen to on my iPod, and I was aware of Bell from his Nooma and Everything is Spiritual videos.
So I sought him out on the iTunes store, and gave a few of Bell’s sermons a listen. I was wowed. He consistently cranked out a couple of sermons a month that were as insightful and illuminating as any of his videos. Probably moreso, actually.
I say ‘a couple times a month’ because he shared teaching duties with a friend of his by the name of Shane Hipps. It took me a few weeks to give Hipps a try, but when I did, to my surprise, I found that I liked his sermons more than those of the Robster – partly because I find Bell’s jittery mannerisms a bit distracting, but mostly because Hipps’ comments and insights align with what I seem to need sermons. He has a real knack for explaining historical context, exploring translation nuances and connecting the text with what it might mean for people today.
For me today.
Anyway, things went along fine until about this time last year, when Bell announced he was leaving Mars Hill to move to California to work on a new sort of project (he was deliberately vague at the time, and I haven’t done research to find out what he’s been up to).
That’s OK, I consoled myself last year. At least we still have Shane.
And we did – until Sept. 2, when Hipps officially passed the torch to Kent Dobson – Mars Hill’s new teaching pastor – and announced that he’s stepping away from the pulpit to “serve the broader church” as an author and lecturer. (I like Kent Dobson just fine, by the way. If we can’t have Bell or Hipps, he’s a fine choice.)
And I gotta tell you, that made me mad. ‘Serve the broader church?!? You’re already doing that via Podcast, Shane! Hello?!?’ Hence the angry email that almost was.
The email would also have contained the following text, though:
Shane, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for the time you spent at Mars Hill. Your sermons were fantastic and helped me immensely as I strove to be a follower of Christ. Many of these Disciplehood posts grew from seeds planted in your sermons. I’m a better disciple because of you, so thanks so much for your service. I wish you nothing but the best!
But I’m still mad.
You see, I’ve read several books and listened to dozens of sermons by both Rob Bell and Texas megapastor Max Lucado. I’ve watched most of the Nooma videos, as well as a couple of Bell’s movie-length lecture videos. I’ve enjoyed and learned from the videos and books, but not nearly as much as I’ve enjoyed and learned from the audio recordings of their sermons.
I came to the conclusion that the plain, simple Sunday morning sermon is still the most powerful method of delivering Jesus and His message to His people.
Preachers should preach. Period.
(The Trash Heap has spoken!)
It took me almost a week to wonder if the message I pondered sending to the Hippster wasn’t meant just as much for me.
You see, one of the reasons I write these Disciplehood blogs is to develop my skills as a Christian communicator, in the hopes that one day I’ll be able to share God’s word with people as a career – not just a hobby. And since I’m a professional writer, it seemed logical that God made me to be a Christian author. I’ve wondered for a while if I might have a little C.S. Lewis in me. (Probably a very little bit, to be clear.)
Now, Christian book publishers don’t generally hand out multi-tome contracts to enthusiastic laypeople – even if they are decent scribes (and I do mean ‘if’), so I figured if I’m going to have a shot at this, some sort of theological training would have to be in my future. Maybe even seminary and some sort of ordination.
I thought God was nudging me toward becoming a deacon, for a variety of reasons: Deacons often work part-time, have different (and fewer) responsibilities than priests and they’re rarely (if ever) the top dawgs in their churches. I’ve seen in my career that I’m a much more of a Riker than a Picard – I’m much better as a second-in-command than I am as a captain. (Insert Frank Burns and Henry Blake if you’re more of a M*A*S*H* fan than a Trekkie. Or better yet, don’t.)
And being a part-time second banana preacherman seems to dovetail nicely with the idea of helping connect people to Christ through books.
Looking at me with glasses half-empty, though, you could make me squirm by asking me if I see clergyhood the same way stand-up comics seemed to look at their artform in the 1990s – not as an end, but a means to an end. A cynic would say that the goal of the yuk-yuk set a decade or two ago was to follow in the footsteps of Roseanne, Jerry Seinfeld and Tim Allen – to get so good at stand-up comicry that you land a sitcom gig – thereby ending your time as a stand-up comic.
The parallel is a bit unflattering for me, but in fairness, I honestly thought this was God’s idea, not mine. Thanks to my little epiphany this week, it appears that He has changed His mind.
Maybe my declaration that preachers should preach, period, has more to do with me than with Shane Hipps. Maybe it was a wake-up call that if I’m going to seriously consider putting on a collar someday, I need to be prepared to be a preacher first and a writer second.
If at all.
In one sense, the idea is comforting. After all, the number of Christian books currently available for purchase is downright staggering, and the market for them is comparably small. (Every Tom, Dick and Harry thinks they might have a little C.S. Lewis in him, it seems, but mass audiences don’t seem to agree with them all. Funny that.) So even if I ended up getting signed as an author, the chances that one of my books would be read by a significant number of people – no matter how awesome it is – is pretty minuscule. (Not too minuscule for God, of course – but fighting that uphill battle, even [or is that especially?] if it’s God’s will, seems pretty daunting.)
But on the other hand, the notion of putting my whole heart into clergyhood suggests I should look at doing it full-time as a priest – not dabbling as a deacon. And if that’s the case, I might end up as the top banana of a church someplace, rather than a deputy dawg.
But I’m starting to remember to take comfort in the fact that even the rector of a parish isn’t the real top dawg. All of us – even parish priests, poobahs and popes – are Rikers, doing our best to serve The Picard. God gives all of us our orders, and it’s up to all of us to try to make it so.
My gut still tells me that Shane Hipps belongs more in the pulpit than the bookstore, but I think this is a case where I might need to practise what I preach.
Peace be with you.