Editor's note: Though our interview (part one and part two) with Dave Ferguson about the power of group sermon preparation provided a helpful picture of the discipline, we thought it would be wise to sit in on the actual process. The pastoral staff at New Life Community Church (a multi-site, multi-ethnic church that meets across the Chicagoland area) agreed to let me be a "fly on wall" during one of their group preparation meetings, creating a live-as-it-happens opportunity to observe this unique approach to sermon writing.
After spending the first hour of their Monday morning in prayer, the pastoral staff of New Life Community Church huddles around a table to pull together next Sunday's message. As I walk into the conference room to join them, I see that the table is covered with Bibles, pens, notepads, laptops, andno less importantmugs and paper cups filled to the brim with coffee (the morning people clutch bottled water). Over the course of an hour, I will sit quietly in a corner and watch 16 individuals with 16 different personalities, imaginations, backgrounds, and strengths do their best to shape one sermon outline that will be preached in nine different locations to nine different audiences.
I cannot help but wonder if this is too tall of a task for a group. I rarely agree with myself when I'm putting together a sermonlet alone 15 others! I struggle to keep one audience in mind, so I don't know what I'd do with eight more. Adding to the potential for disaster is the anything-but-easy text for this morning's session: Acts 4:325:14. This particular pericope includes the haunting, daunting story of Ananias and Sapphira.
As the session begins, I discover that for each sermon, one individualchosen from among New Life's five main teaching pastorsis given the responsibility of "driving" the sermon outline. This isn't all that different from what I've known and practiced in sermon preparation: one person behind the homiletical wheel. The difference in New Life's approach is that the one driver is responsible for shaping the sermonic map in light of the journey the group takes together. If someone points out something along the way that's been missed, the driver turns the car around and takes a second look with an eye toward working new discoveries into the final map. In this approach to sermon preparation, you have to learn to love the backseat driver.
This morning's driver is Francisco "Paco" Amador. By the series of handouts I received as I entered the room, it's clear that Paco has already been on quite the road trip with our text. At the end of the previous week's group session, he pitched a general map of roughly drawn boundaries to get everyone on the same exegetical and creative road. Just one week later, Paco has colored in specific landmarks and key intersections by masterfully outlining the passage, highlighting key words, and pointing out pivotal issues of context.
After Acts 4:325:14 is read aloud, Paco takes an in-depth look at his map with contagious passion. He's done his homework. He notes a few key words that populate the passage (the consistent use of the word "great" and the first use of the word ekklesia in all of Acts). He makes sure everyone sees the benefits of this terrifying story being included in Luke's workand what would be missing if it hadn't (it's a remarkable look at the hard edge of community). He points out the major themes that serve as scaffolding for the narrative (purity, grace, fear, accountability, greed, and community). He helps us marvel at the intriguing irony of 5:1314 ("no one else dared join them nevertheless, more and more were added to their number"). Paco even takes a fascinating look at some of the possible uses of typology (if Acts parallels Genesis, Ananias and Sapphira may parallel Adam and Eve).
The depth of the conversation thus far takes me by surprise. It's easy to question the likelihood of substantive work being done in a group session like this one, but what's unfolding before my eyes seems to prove it's possible. Within the first half hour, typology has been introduced into the mix. That's not driving through a mere puddle; that's driving off a bridge into an ocean!
Along with the startling degree of depth, I'm also overwhelmed by the many directions we could go from here. A passage like Acts 4:325:14 is a Grand Canyon text. Some travelers may look at it and say it's simply a hole in the groundthe central idea is easy to identify and move along from. The more careful traveler, however, will apply the brakes and stare long and hard at the text, noticing newer nuances with every blink. You can look out over the scene to the point of dizzied silliness if you're not careful, but this group isn't falling prey to such a temptation. I watch as they carefully and cautiously note the many nuances in Luke's scene that effectively speak to church, mission, fear of God, honesty, purity, community, and greed. We're 30 minutes in, and I see the potential for constructing three or four exegetically sound, God-honoring sermons.
Theirs was a sacred energy that can only be generated when a group of preachers hold a text in their hands with the right combination of caution, care, and creativity.
As Paco navigates the road, backseat drivers begin to clear their throats and offer thoughts on what they see as they look out the window. Paco is interrupted with questions, observations built atop his own, and a few thoughts on how best to capture the scene for the unique audiences everyone will inherit on Sunday. But these aren't the usual ugly interruptions you get from backseat drivers; they're actually productive. Each one offers a better map than the one the group swore by just minutes ago.
Mark Jobe plays the most pivotal role in shaping the map. Jobe has been with New Life since 1986 and is the closest person to a senior pastor (his preference is to be known as "just" one of the teaching pastors). Though there is an appointed driver for each session, it's clear that Jobe steps in at times to take the wheel. On this particular morning, he reminds everyone of the seminal vision for the upcoming message. When the current teaching series based on key passages in the Book of Acts was first put together, the weekend study of Acts 4:325:14 was intended to show the power and necessity of purity in the life of the church. As the hour unfolds, Jobe feels the simplicity of the theme is in danger of getting lost in the traffic of observations and conclusions. With skill and quiet grace, he takes us from the edge of the road to the center of the lane.
A chief area for adjustment is in the construction of the sermon headings. The group chooses to keep the first of three headings suggested by Paco"Great grace attracts great attention"but the final two are shaped to reflect a sharper focus on purity: "Supernatural guidance demands strong cleansing" becomes "Great attention demands a purified mission," and "Clear mission sparks pure growth" becomes "A purified mission sparks genuine growth." Once the headings are sharpened to make for a smoother journey for both preacher and audience, other matters are dealt with. Some of the tangential issues are filed away for another time, another sermon. Key texts that appropriately support the central text are asked for and found. All the while, Jobe does a masterful job of tying in newer discoveries that Paco and others have made along the way.
With the map established, the final 1520 minutes are a little more playful in nature. Jobe gets an idea for an introduction from something he saw in the news. One of the men finds more information about the news item on Google, offers a synopsis to the group, and sends a link to everyone so they can massage it for their own use. The illustration, however, is based on the experiences of some area high school students. One person speaks up and urges the group to push themselves to find other illustrations that will speak into a more "adult" worldexamples that aren't quite as juvenile or even extremeso as to not alienate a more multi-layered sea of hearers within the first few minutes of the sermon. Everyone takes note to dig a little deeper when looking for illustrations in magazines, newspapers, or websites, and they'll keep in touch throughout the week as ideas take shape.
As more illustrations are placed on the table for consideration, other creative thoughts emerge. Someone shares a pithy statement they think may be effective at pointing the listener in the right direction of application: Inspect your life before you wreck your life. Another person suggests that the central message of this particular sermon serves as a powerful foundation for the celebration of Communion. Everyone agrees, and in a matter of seconds, the major structure of the entire worship service has been positioned to create a powerful worship encounter with God and one another.
Paco, our driver, has been jotting down notes in a flurry. In the next few days, he'll create a new sermon map that draws from Monday's mountain of notes and ideas. The resulting map will be sent to each of the main preachers for the weekend services. Each teaching pastor will tweak the sermon here and there to fit his personality and that of his audience, but everyone's in agreement that what has happened in our time together has gone a long way toward a strong sermon structure. As the group closes their Bibles, shuts down their laptops, and swallows the last few sips of coffee, Jobethe driver for next weekhands out his initial map for a sermon on Acts 6:17, and the road trip starts all over again.
As I drive back to the offices at Christianity Today, I reflect on the journey I just experienced. It had an appropriate energy from beginning to end. The excitement of the individuals involved never usurped their profound responsibility to get at the right interpretation of the text. They never drove roughshod over the passage, cavalierly storming their way to whimsical ideas and whatever else may tickle the senses of their audiences. They did not succumb to any of the temptations that could attend this practice: truth by democracy, divisive disagreements, or a finished "product" that was all shine but no substance. They did a little dancing, but not at the expense of depth. They did not bend the text to the point of breaking; the text broke them. Theirs was a sacred energy that can only be generated when a group of preachers holds a text in their hands with the right combination of caution, care, and creativity. But I cannot help but think, That particular approach to sermon preparation is nice for them, but I don't know if it's right for me. I like to pull things together in isolation. I'm the only one who needs to drive this car!
Or am I?
Three weeks ago this morning, I was working on a message that dealt with an incredibly difficult subject. I was pulling out my hair, losing sleep, tearing up pages of notes, and driving my poor wife crazy. Here's the only thing that helped: I reached out. I called my father to bat around ideas. I shared my notes with two trusted friends I meet with each week for prayer and reflection. I cracked open books and commentaries to see who agreed with my conclusions and who didn't. I shared tidbits with one of my co-workers to make sure I wasn't crazy. As I think about my sermon preparation honestly and soberly, I realize I do exactly what the folks at New Life do every Monday morningI just don't have everyone in the same room at the same time.
Brian Lowery is managing editor of PreachingToday.com.