Everyone loves a journey, setting out for a destination—known or unknown. They promise us new vistas, fresh learning, unexpected thrills and challenges, and deeper relationships with those with whom we share the road.
The most effective sermons come from a concerted effort to guide the congregation in achieving its God-given destiny one year at a time.
Preaching can be like that. Each year pastors have the opportunity to lead their congregations to new and better places with one another and with God. That's what we call it at Grace Chapel—the Teaching Journey. A preaching calendar is texts and dates; functional, clarifying, but not all that inspiring. A teaching journey offers discovery and growth, for both preacher and hearers.
In his book, Strategic Preaching, William Hull makes a compelling case for this kind of intentionality in building the preaching schedule. He writes, "The most effective sermons come from a concerted effort to guide the congregation in achieving its God-given destiny one year at a time." In other words, we can think of each year as a distinct and strategic leg of a congregation's journey toward spiritual maturity and missional impact.
With that in mind, let's plan our next trip.
Choosing a destination
Travelling without a destination is called wandering. It's a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, but not very productive or satisfying over the long haul. (It can also look and feel a lot like being lost!) So, "What should I preach this year?" is the wrong question to ask. It too often leads to wandering. Better to ask, "Where do we want to go this year?"
Every spring our ministry staff sits down to consider this question. (Our ministry year at Grace Chapel runs from September to August, following the public school calendar which generally begins after Labor Day.) Over the course of a couple of meetings and/or a retreat setting, we assess the health and vitality of the congregation and try to discern where the Lord might be leading us next. Like shepherds looking over the flock, we ask ourselves what the flock might need in terms of diet, environment, and direction. We typically ask questions like:
Spiritually, where do we need to take the congregation next year? Here we consider which biblical texts, theological truths, and spiritual practices we might need to explore. Sometimes this is driven by our commitment to teaching the whole counsel of God—balancing Old and New Testament, narrative and didactic texts, etc. Other times we sense a weakness or a hunger in the congregation that needs to be addressed—understanding the Holy Spirit, cultivating spiritual disciplines, family issues, etc.
Several years ago we were coming off a contentious and disheartening season as the congregation wrestled with some internal governance issues. We sensed that we all needed some soul-searching and spiritual renewal. We declared the next ministry year to be a year of Transformation: Becoming More like Christ. Our teaching journey that year took us through the Beatitudes, the spiritual disciplines, and the life of David.
Organizationally, what needs to happen in the life of the church this year? We establish and prioritize ministry objectives and transitions for the coming year—revitalizing small groups, a building project, planting a church, an evangelism or discipleship initiative, etc. We don't want our sermons to be stump speeches that simply serve to drive an organizational agenda, but they can and should provide biblical inspiration and instruction for ministry growth. A corporate CEO once told me how he envied pastors, who every week have an opportunity to cast vision and values to the entire organization! Pastors, who are both preachers and teachers, need to leverage that opportunity.
When we launched our multi-site initiative four years ago, we spent the ministry year re-visiting and re-vitalizing our core commitments to Going Deeper (fall), Getting Closer (winter), and Reaching Wider (spring).
Culturally, what questions and challenges might people be wrestling with this year? We attempt to discern and even anticipate regional, national, and global trends or happenings that might impact people's lives and the church's ministry. If it's a presidential election year, a series on biblical citizenship might be in order, or the kingship of Christ. If the nation is in a season of economic decline or prosperity, there might be stewardship issues to explore, or teaching on the providence of God.
In addition to these brainstorming and discernment discussions, I will sometimes invite a focus group of laypeople to sit with me for a couple hours and share their questions, challenges, and experiences with a particular topic, like spiritual formation or family life. I invite a cross-section of the congregation, and send them a few thought questions in advance, and/or some biblical texts we might be considering.
With input from these various groups and sessions, I go off on my own and work out a road map and preaching calendar. Typically I try to get away for a day or two to allow time for prayer, reflection, walks in the woods, and uninterrupted hours with my Bible and legal pad. On my August retreat I'll lay out the general flow of the year from September through June, and a week by week calendar including text, topic, and big idea through Advent. I'll do a similar thing before the winter and spring seasons. Now that I have a staff to work with, I have found it helpful once or twice a year to ask another pastor to run point on a series or two, like Advent or summer. It gives me some breathing space to be more creative and reflective, and develops them as preachers.
Ultimately, it is my job as senior pastor and teacher to synthesize this input and craft a concise declaration of our destination for the year. Our ministry theme typically falls under one of our three core commitments: Going Deeper, Getting Closer, and Reaching Wider. This past year we felt it was time to challenge our congregation to be more outward-focused, both in our personal lives and as a congregation. Our Ministry Theme became, Living on Mission: Where Your Life Meets God's Heart.
Mapping the route
Having determined a destination, the next step is to map out the route. From a teaching perspective, consider how to get the congregation "from here to there" over the next year.
We often use a template that we have adapted from Dallas Willard's work in spiritual formation. Willard spoke of an essential progression from vision to intention to means. Vision describes and clarifies a preferred future state—I want to get in shape. Intention involves a decision of the will to move in a new direction—I will join a health club. Means describes the activities by which we actually make progress toward this preferred state—three workouts a week, a low-fat diet, and an accountability partner. The genius behind Willard's approach is the simple reality that people don't typically change until they want to change, and then decide to change. If we simply instruct people in Christian truth and practice without first engaging the heart and the will, we get conformity without real transformation.
With this formational template in mind, we map out a teaching journey that will lead us through seasons of Vision, Intention, and Application (VIA). In the fall we cast Vision for some change or improvement in our lives as Christ-followers and as a congregation. We try to paint a compelling picture of whom or what we might become if we were to grow into God's purposes for us. There will, of course, be plenty of opportunities for practical application in these messages, but the focus will be on seeing the big picture of God's will for us in this particular area. We actually call the first Sunday after Labor Day, "Vision Sunday."
As we transition from that fall season to the new calendar year we call the congregation to make a commitment to pursuing this new and better way of living. This Intention step might take the shape of a Commitment Sunday at the conclusion of the fall series, or it might be accomplished through a brief mini-series. January, with its focus on a fresh start and resolutions, is a natural time for this kind of emphasis and intentionality. In the spring season, we focus on practical Application of the biblical principles we have been learning, often with a thematic series or two focused on relationships, lifestyle, contemporary issues, etc.
This simple road map through the regions of Vision, Intention, and Application, will also include some "side trips" to accommodate the liturgical calendar—Advent, Lent, etc.—and congregational life—missions week, stewardship Sunday, etc. We treat the summer as a season of Renewal, backing off the intensity of the school year with a series that is visitor-friendly and that people can drop in and out of without feeling lost. We might explore the Psalms, or the parables of Jesus, or a series of biblical character studies—Unsung Heroes. (We actually produced a series of "trading cards" for this series that people could collect from week to week, each one offering a synopsis of the character and message for that week.)
Packing our bags
With a destination determined through our discernment process, and a road map in front of us, we're now ready to decide what our particular teaching texts and themes will be.
This past year, we launched our Living on Mission emphasis with a 10-week Vision series on the missionary journeys of Paul. We followed Paul from city to city, discovering the various dimensions of missional living that emerged along the way. I realized as I planned and preached the series that in thirty years of preaching I had taught Acts 1-10 many times over, but had never systematically worked through the middle chapters of the book! Each city brought into focus a different aspect of the Christian mission—understanding God's heart for the lost (Philippi), learning and living the Scriptures (Thessalonica and Berea), engaging the culture (Athens), etc. The compelling stories from Paul's life on the road, with illustrations from the lives of contemporary Christ-followers, offered us all a better narrative for our own lives and travels. In the midst of that series, we were able to shape our two Global Awareness Sundays into the overall theme with a focus on Joining God in Hard Places. Organizationally, the series also provided biblical inspiration and vision for the launching of a third campus that fall.
As we ended that first series just before Advent, we shifted into Intentional mode. On the final Sunday of the series, we "commissioned" the entire congregation with a formal charge and prayer, just as we typically commission our Summer Mission Teams. A baptism Sunday near the end of the series offered people an opportunity to make a public commitment to following Christ and living on mission.
In January we blended Intention and Application with a four week series entitled, Work Matters. We considered how to leverage our working lives for kingdom impact, beyond simply tithing our paycheck and putting a Bible on our desks. A variety of texts helped us to explore the biblical themes of vocation and human flourishing, as well as how to appropriately serve people and share our faith in the workplace. Each Sunday we formally commissioned people who worked in various sectors of society—Education and Child Rearing, Commerce and Culture Making, Health Care and Human Services, and Government, Law, and Justice. (We typically like to offer a short, seeker-friendly series in January that might compel Christmas visitors to return. The practical, life-related focus on work accomplished that effectively.)
Continuing the Intentional emphasis, we spent the month of February tracking Jonah, the reluctant missionary. We explored the internal and external forces that tend to keep us from living on mission.
The season of Lent provided an opportunity to take a break from our missional focus and do some soul care and spiritual formation. (We've learned not to hammer the same theme all year long. People can get weary of it—preachers, too!—and we don't want to overlook other issues in people's lives and faith.) This year we explored the seven deadly sins in a series entitled, Sick: Facing What's Wrong Inside. It set up a dramatic and welcome celebration of Life! on Easter Sunday.
In the spring season we returned to our missional theme and leaned heavily into Application with a series entitled, Every Day Matters. Each week we considered the missional possibilities of some aspect of daily life—household chores, parenting, being a good neighbor, everyday encounters, leisure time, etc. We were able to "synch" some of these topics to appropriate Sundays, like Mother's Day, and to the liturgical calendar's notion of Ordinary Time. On several occasions we included faith stories or interviews with people who were living out these truths in their daily lives. While the series was packaged topically, each week's message involved the exposition of a biblical text, as it does every Sunday at Grace!
As helpful and strategic as it is to chart and follow a road map, there are times we need to take a detour or even go "off road" for a week or a season.
Sometimes such moments are obvious. In the spring of 2013, we were in the middle of a series from Ephesians 4-6, exploring the practical application of Paul's teaching on being "in Christ." (We had launched the year in the fall with a vision-casting emphasis on Ephesians 1-3.) On Monday, April 15, the Boston Marathon bombing literally shook the city, physically and psychic-ly. While no one from the congregation was hurt, we had many who had run or volunteered for the race, including first responders in the medical tents and law enforcement. It was immediately obvious that a scheduled sermon on marriage from Ephesians 5 wasn't going to cut it that week. So we went instead to Psalm 10 and traced David's movement in prayer from anger to justice, from grief to comfort, and from fear to faith. It was a relevant message for many seekers who found their way to church that day, and our own folks appreciated our readiness to scrap our plans in order to speak to their hurt and questions.
Sometimes the need to change course or make a detour is more subtle. A few years ago in a staff meeting we were sharing a variety of pastoral concerns we had for folks in our congregation. Some involved loss and grief, others were financial or circumstantial. It suddenly struck us that quite a few people in our congregation were hurting, and that the nation itself was struggling through a season of financial uncertainty and hardship. Even though we had already crafted a strategic teaching journey for the year, we sensed the congregation needed something different. We rearranged the calendar and added a short series from 2 Corinthians that we called, Jars of Clay, in which we explored some of Paul's teaching on faith and perseverance in the face of hardship and testing.
Having a road map enables you to take detours and make adjustments, yet still arrive at your destination.
As it turned out, the journey toward Living on Mission led to some remarkable growth in the congregation and the ministry. The missional emphasis provided biblical grounding and congregational energy for launching two new campuses. We had over 800 people participate in a Spring Serve day, scattering across the city to bring beauty, health, and vitality to surrounding communities in Jesus' name. But what I found most gratifying was to hear our people using the language of mission as they spoke about their work, family life, and involvement in the community. Preaching through these missional texts and themes had a very personal impact, as well, as it prompted Karen and me to host a Bible study for our under-churched neighbors.
It always feels good to pull into the driveway at the end of a long trip, having made it to your destination and enjoyed some new discoveries and growth on the way. So it is for the congregation as well as the preachers at the end of a teaching journey. Travelling through the varied terrain of Vision, Intention, Application, and Renewal provides an engaging and satisfying sense of movement, progress, and discovery to the church year. The congregation may not be aware of these seasonal shifts in mood and content. All they know is that they had a nice trip, and they can't wait to see where we might go next!
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.