How Finney Changed Church Buildings

Sometimes it only takes a very small measure of church history to cast a large light on modern evangelicalism practice. In Worship Through the Ages by Vernon M. Whaley, I discovered why modern church buildings are pulpit-centered and are often shaped like a theater. Whaley explains that Finney emphasized preaching above all else, and made every other element of the service subordinate to the sermon:

Finney almost single-handedly inverted worship and evangelism. Heretofore, pastors believed that worship was primary and evangelism was a by-product. Finney believed the exact reverse—everything is done for the singular purpose of evangelism.

For this reason, Finney requested that before he held meetings anywhere, the hosting church must remodel its church building.

When confirming his availability for a series of meetings, Finney would often inform the trustees of the host church that they needed to remodel the pulpit area of their building. Telling them that “the present location of seats and pulpit does not fit our new and necessary mode of worship,” he would instruct them to dispense with the church balconies and split chancel. Then, he would construct a platform across the front and place a pulpit in the middle to make certain the preaching remained the central focus of the services. Box pews were replaced by “simple pews” to allow room for people to respond to the invitation.

Where did Finney get the idea for such a radical reorientation of the sanctuary? Jeanne Kilde, architectural historian and religious studies scholar, explains in When Church Became Theatre that on one occasion Finney preached in a theater that could hold 2000 in Manhattan in 1832. This “unwittingly launched an experiment that would transform Protestant architecture.” Until this point, most churches looked like this:

After Finney experienced great results in the theater, his benefactor, Lewis Tappan told Finney, “I would preserve the form of a theater as much as possible.” Consequently, they built the Broadway Tabernacle a few years later, based on the template of a theater.

Notice in the picture above how there is no pulpit to elevate the preacher. This forces the modern preacher to hold his audience with “performance and authoritarian strategies.”  For anyone trained to preach in revival meetings in the open field this made sense, but when preachers lost that experience, many had trouble holding an audience. Our modern buildings are more like a theater than a church, and therefore require a performed sermon if they are to hold attention, not just a lecture or homily.



How to Avoid Multiplying Useless Work

Have you ever wondered why small things can feel so huge? Do you want to know how to avoid feeling flustered because of small interruptions? I discovered an explanation in Matt Perman’s new book, What’s Best Next (which I reviewed here). Also, Perman gives some advice to help avoid this feeling, which you can find at the end of this post.

Researchers have found that whenever most systems — such as airports, freeways, and other such things — exceed about 90 percent capacity, efficiency drops massively. Not just slightly, but massively. This is called the “ringing effect.” The reason is that as a system nears its capacity, the effect of relatively small disturbances is magnified exponentially. This is why traffic slows down at rush hour almost inexplicably. When you think about it, unless there is an accident, there’s almost no reason that traffic should be going slow. And, here’s the thing: you’re right. Or, in other words, there is a reason, but it’s not what you’d expect. The reason traffic is slow is because of the relatively small and otherwise insignificant braking that some guy four miles ahead did — and the person a quarter mile behind him, and half a mile behind him. It’s not that they are slamming on their brakes; under ordinary circumstances, what they are doing would have almost no effect on the f low of traffic. The problem is that once capacity is past about 90 percent, small disturbances have a huge effect. And so traffic slows down, sometimes to a crawl. That’s the ringing effect.

Perman gives an example of how useless work multiplies when a system is too close to capacity:

You see the ringing effect, for example, when you are trying to schedule a meeting for ten people, and they all have to be there. It’s almost impossible to find a time that works for everyone, resulting in an untold number of emails going back and forth. And then, once everything is figured out, something unexpected comes up for someone and you need to reschedule the meeting again (and then reschedule the other stuff on your plate that is now interfering with the new time). That “rearranging” is the ringing effect. And it takes time away from the productive stuff that you have to do (in this case, times ten). And the effects continue cascading, for as you keep rescheduling, other people involved need to reschedule as well (even if they aren’t part of the group for the original meeting). And on it goes.

The best thing to do to avoid the ringing effect? Relentlessly prioritize your work by learning to say no to things that don’t fit inside your giftings or calling! We are finite creatures and shouldn’t expect that it is our job to solve every problem that comes our way. Remember this: the need is not the call…

Michael Hyatt has a great post on how to say no.

How about you? What other tips do you have for beating the ringing effect? Let us know in the comments?

Review: What’s Best Next by Matt Perman

I just finished: What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done by Matt Perman. This is the book I Imagine John Piper would write on productivity; its Christian hedonism/Jonathon Edwards mixed with a good dose of the best secular authors on productivity. This shouldn’t surprise us since Perman worked for Desiring God for some time, and Piper writes the forward…

As the title implies, this book is not just a collection of productivity hacks; instead, it articulates a Christian theology of why we should prize efficiency, well also explaining why we sometimes shouldn’t. This may be the book’s most important contribution, given that much of what matters in the information age is intangible, and often feels incredibly unproductive (i.e., writing a book, networking).

Like most New Testament epistles, the book begins with theology, and only then moves toward practice. As a New Testament professor, my favorite part was the theology of productivity section. The rest feels familiar, covering skills like speed reading and task management (an expanded and updated version of Getting Things Done by David Allen mixed with First Things First by Covey). I don’t feel like I learned much from the skills section, but I loved the incredible selection of quotes from Christian history about productivity, especially from Jonathon Edwards, which will sparkle in future sets of class notes! Along with this, Perman has also included interviews with a variety of Christian and secular influencers on their own habits of productivity. The interviews range from Seth Godin to my favorite Christian blogger, Tim Challies. To be honest, I was hoping for more from these interviews, given the way they were hyped in the introduction. Nevertheless, they still provide a nice break from the nitty-gritty of task management.

On that note, the whole book is designed to be readable in whatever format you want. You can gobble it in one sitting, or read a chapter every other month. It is set up with text boxes at the end of each chapter which include the core material for the chapter, including a core quote and the core takeaway, as well as follow-up reading. Another strength is that the book allows for any level of application, insisting that it is better to act than fiddle with perfecting our tools. This explains the title of the book, that “What’s Best Next” is actually a question. The core thesis of the book is that no matter what moment we are in, true productivity means honoring God with our gifts by discerning what is most valuable for his kingdom in our immediate context.

My final assessment: I expect this will be required reading for vocational ministry at the seminary level, because it moves beyond efficiency to theology and provides a map charting how to be productive in the age of 24/7 intangible productivity.

Related Links:

How to Short-Circuit the Need for Experience in Gaining Wisdom

Seneca once said: “The way to wisdom is long if one follows the precepts but short if one follows the patterns.”Image

I think this stands as a good tagline for the following story:

There was a story on 60 Minutes a very long time ago about a pilot who was in his last few weeks before his mandatory retirement. On one flight’s takeoff, a light went on signaling that one of the plane’s engines was overheating. The co-pilot asked if he should shut down the engine in line with standard protocols. The pilot said “no,” circled around and landed the plane back on the runway they’d taken off from. Something had felt different to him.


It turned out that the engine light was functioning properly and that the engine was indeed overheating. The data was correct. Things had felt different to the pilot because the reason the engine was overheating was that the other three engines had already shut down. The overheating engine was working harder than normal because it was the only thing keeping the plane in the air.


Data are helpful for decisions. They can dictate routine, automated decisions. But complex, out-of-the-ordinary decisions are best made when data are filtered through experience.

This story was featured in the fantastic article titled “Why Google Can Not Run the World: Wisdom = Data + Experience“.

I bring it up because it demonstrates how we can short-circuit the difficult path of gaining wisdom through experience by copying those who already have it. This practice can help us skip the heartache normally required to learn wisdom, and as the above story illustrates, this is especially true when our mentors can’t explain why they know that life works the way it does.

Often, it is okay to trust the wisdom and intuition of those who should know, because the pay-off just might save you from a plane-wreck.

Is Your Experience of Christianity Supernatural?

I read a book not too long ago called: Preaching to a Post-Everything World by Jack Eswine. This quote stood out to me because although I am part of a Pentecostal college, it seems like sometimes modern Christians don’t believe in the supernatural:

Francis Schaeffer once asked a penetrating question: “I wonder what would happen to most churches and Christian work if we awakened tomorrow, and everything concerning the reality and work of the Holy Spirit, and everything concerning prayer, were removed from the Bible. I don’t mean just ignored, but actually cut out—disappeared. I wonder how much difference it would make?” The potential of doing ministry without or contrary to God’s Spirit is real. Schaeffer’s question asks us to examine whether our weekly practice would be impacted at all if the Spirit and his appointed means of piety were removed from our ministries.

Often I wonder if most modern Christians are either practical atheists, or just deists at best. If we are honest, is Schaeffer correct?