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Group Sermon Preparation (part 2)

The power of a collaborative effort.

This is part two of a two-part series. In part one Dave Ferguson explained why his staff prepares sermons in community and painted a picture of what sermon group preparation looks like. In part two, he continues to add to his description and responds to concerns some might have with the discipline.

Preaching Today: When the initial meeting is done, what are the next steps you take as a group?

Dave Ferguson: Our Teaching Team Leader, Tim Sutherland, usually puts together the introduction, and those who have been appointed various tasks take the notes from the meeting and type them up. Each person has a week to get their portion of the message done. After all the parts of the sermon have been gathered, Tim edits the manuscript, creating what we call our 1.0. At this point we're seven weeks out from the actual sermon delivery, and we already have the initial draft of the sermon manuscript!

The heat gets turned up again on the Thursday and Friday before the Saturday or Sunday the message will be delivered. We've had our 1.0 for quite some time, and we almost always have more content than we need. We often have to spend a bit of time eliminating material. Those who will be teaching the message take the 1.0 and usually change it so much that we have a 5.0 before it actually gets taught! Every time someone makes a change, they e-mail everybody else in the group. They simply add a little note that says, "Ran across a great story; put this in!" or "This piece of Scripture doesn't work. Let's go in this direction." We go back and forth, allowing the collaborative process to continue.

If I get together with two or three of my sharpest friends who are teachers, within an hour and a half or so, we could crank out a killer outline that would make for a great message.

We now use a website where we can upload everything instead of e-mailing it to everybody. It's terrific! You have access to all the people who are within our New Thing network. You can also see things like service flow, music, and sketches. All the worship service elements are right there so you can make sure everything lines up.

In your book The Big Idea, you mention that even after the sermon has been delivered, the collaborative effort continues. The group gathers together to reflect on the sermon's effectiveness. What does that look like?

We use Zoomerang surveys for post-sermon reflection. Zoomerang is an online program you can purchase for your church to create basic surveys. We invite the entire staff and some of our volunteers to take the survey and help us evaluate the whole service, including the sermon. Everybody gets a chance to make a comment about how effective the teaching was at a particular location and what they would have done differently. Our two most basic questions on the survey are "Did the message hit the big idea?" and "Did the message help develop the vision and mission of CCC?"

Let's back up for a moment and address a few issues related to the heart of the group process. Some might question whether 105 minutes is long enough to do sound exegesis of a passage. Has someone done in-depth exegesis prior to the meeting or is that one of the things someone in the group is assigned as the meeting comes to a close?

We don't want to give the allusion that 105 minutes is all it takes to create a great message. It's just the time that the team spends together to pool their best ideas and create a sermon outline. The exegetical process is before, during, and after the 105 minutes of the teaching team meeting. We are always working through issues of the text. As you well know, nobody ever really finishes exegesis. Scripture is a well that's deeper than anybody's bucket and rope!

Primarily it's Tim Sutherland's responsibility to make sure we have done our exegesis well, though he oversees a team of more than ten message writers from across the country. He makes sure word studies and other study elements are being done before the meeting, during the meeting, and after the meeting—right up to "go time" on a Saturday night or Sunday morning.

Another concern about this approach to sermon writing is that there's the potential for a lot of disagreement. How do you deal with that within the group?

There really are only a few disagreements. This is due, in part, to the CCC culture. We have such a strong belief in community that I think we trust the group more than we do ourselves! If the group says, "Dave, I understand what you're saying, but this isn't going to work," I don't just feel like I need to submit; I feel like it's the smart thing to do! Any disagreements that we've had in the past weren't over something key like exegesis. They were usually a matter of bias or style or structure. Some may not want to tell a joke because they think it's stupid. Others may want to tell a different story than the one we've landed on. I may choose a metaphor or a prop that's different from the one someone else wants to use. The disagreements are over more subtle things like that.

A lot of people will look at your picture of group sermon preparation and think, It must be nice, but I don't have the resources or the individuals to pull that off! What would you suggest to someone who's in a smaller church or doesn't have the kind of network that you have? Can they pull off this particular approach to sermon preparation? 

I want to emphasize that this is something virtually anybody do. One of my fears with the book was that it makes this look more complicated than it really is. It doesn't have to be as complex as it is for us at CCC. Remember: this process was birthed in a weekly phone call I would make to a friend in Ohio. All you really need to do is get one or two friends and plan your teaching together. That's your starting point. Maybe you then find two or three other people. Even if you're just one pastor in a smaller church, you probably have ministry friends. All of you just need to say, "Okay. We're going to all do this together."

You can also make use of today's technology to make this happen! Because of computers and the Internet, you don't even physically have to get together. You could try and make use of teleconferencing. You could create chat rooms and message boards. E-mail certainly allows you to toss ideas back and forth. You could even create your own blog to work out sermons in community.

Dave Ferguson is the lead pastor of Community Christian Church in Naperville, Illinois. Dave provides visionary leadership for NewThing and he is the president and board chair for Exponential. Dave is also an adjunct professor at Wheaton Graduate School and the author of many Christian leadership books including The Big Idea (Zondervan, 2007).

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Group Sermon Preparation (part 1)

The power of a collaborative effort

Loosening My Grip

A day in the life of group sermon preparation

Preparation: Introduction

How should I invest my limited study time so that I am ready to preach?