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Fighting for your congregation's imagination (part 2)

Preaching for spiritual formation means casting a vision for a new way of life.

This is part two of a two-part series. In part one Skye described preaching as the primary means of casting a vision of life in the Kingdom of God.

PreachingToday.com: Compare a traditional homiletical approach to Philippians 4:19—"My God will supply all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus"—with an approach emphasizing spiritual formation.

Skye Jethani: The traditional approach would be to focus on God's promise to supply all our material needs. But the spiritual formation component in this passage is worry. We live in a society that keeps us scared about finances and security, so that we feel we always have to accumulate more. Jesus tells us not to worry about tomorrow; God will take care of it.

If I were preaching this passage, I would try to paint a picture of a life without worry. I would ask, "What would your life look like if you didn't worry?" That gets back to the character of God himself, which is Jesus' point in the Sermon on the Mount: If God clothes the fields and takes care of the birds, surely he will take care of you, too. The issue is our perception of God. If our imaginations are consumed with God's character, we're not going to worry, but if our imaginations are consumed with what the culture is telling us, we're going to worry constantly.

At the end of the sermon, I would invite people to think about applying the godly vision to their circumstances by deciding what spiritual disciplines might help them reject the worldly vision. What things trigger worry for you? If it's the news, stop watching it for a season. In other words, the application of that passage may have nothing to do with money. Instead, application may focus on answering the question, "How do I deconstruct worry in my life?"

How does your sermon preparation differ from someone who expects to find "how tos" in the text?

Let's consider the Epistles, for example. The key is interpreting any part of an epistle in its context. When Paul lists concrete application ideas in the latter chapters of his letters, he alludes to the foundational theology he establishes at the beginning of the epistle. In 1 Corinthians 7, for example, Paul offers multiple applications about staying as you are: If you're single, don't get married. If you're uncircumcised, stay uncircumcised. If you're a slave, stay a slave. The principle he's teaching is that the external circumstances of your life are not ultimately important. They don't necessarily have a spiritual impact on who you are.

I know some people who are very committed to preaching verse by verse through a book, and I think that's a wonderful way to preach vision. But if you're going through an epistle verse by verse, you may spend months in the final chapters. In every sermon, you have to remind people of the vision the book is addressing. We can preach with a microscope and get so into the detail that we lose the vision, or we can preach metanarrative all the time and never offer application. Both extremes are problematic. But in our culture that wants the pragmatic—give me three alliterated application points so I can go home—we tend to preach with a microscope. Our responsibility is to have the whole vision in mind, from metanarrative to the microscopic, and know at what altitude we are presenting each Sunday.

How do you understand the role of preaching in the overall goal of spiritual formation?

We try to play to the strengths of each of the church's ministries. Preaching has its role. Relationships have their role. Serving has its role. Private disciplines have their roles. We've realized that if somebody comes to worship, attends a small group, and is serving somewhere, they're probably hearing between three and five different messages a week. That's overwhelming.

Our responsibility is to have the whole vision in mind, from metanarrative to the microscopic, and know at what altitude we are presenting each Sunday.

There are seasons when we make sure all our teaching is focused on one thing. We did that with a series about poverty. The preaching cast the vision. We presented the means to fulfilling that vision downstairs in one large adult class. We addressed the question, "How do we apply this in our circumstances?" which gave people concrete ways to apply the principles in their lives. The third component was small groups. Small groups were where people's intention was made clear. In small groups, people cut to the chase and asked themselves, Am I actually going to choose this? What are the obstacles in my life? Vision, intention, and means were all focused on one area of spiritual growth, and we tried to fit the component of spiritual formation with the proper venue for that component.

Do you find that is working well?

Yeah. Over the past couple of years, we've tried it at different seasons. At Advent, for example, we preach a vision of service—of giving ourselves away to others. We stop all of our classes and convert the church building into booths where families and small groups can do service projects that impact missionaries, people in our neighborhoods, and the poor. We are always deciding where people are best able get the vision, where are they going to get the means, and where are they going to make their intention known.

Evangelistic preaching has operated this way for hundreds of years on a much more compact scale. The preacher gets up and presents a vision—either a vision of going to heaven or a vision of going to hell. Then he calls you to make your choice, and the means by which you make that choice is to raise your hand or say a prayer or come forward to the altar. This kind of preaching may have over-simplified the gospel, but it did get the three movements right: vision, intention, and means. We need to think this way about formative preaching as well.

How do you facilitate intention?

I like it to be a physical element in a worship service. If we're talking about money, then getting at their intention may mean providing an opportunity to give. I once preached on spiritual friendship and relationship. Then I invited people to talk to a spouse or friend about what they're going to do this week to connect more meaningfully with somebody they want to grow in a relationship with. So I'll give them an application idea or a point, but quite often it's difficult to get people to acknowledge intention in a worship service.

Another way to do it is to plan an event to reinforce intention. For example, if I preach a number of messages presenting a vision for a life without anger, I might offer a retreat the following month, during which we focus on the issue of anger and the disciplines for rooting it out of our lives. Their intention is expressed by signing up for the retreat, and the means will be presented at the retreat.

Close us with a vision for preaching as spiritual formation.

When you examine the gospels, you find that most of Jesus' preaching was vision casting. So if we really want to preach like Jesus, we need to learn how to preach vision. That means we need a ministry that's structured to handle the means. We'll be limited in what we can accomplish as long as we depend on preaching alone.

Skye Jethani is an author, speaker, consultant, and ordained minister. He also serves as the co-host of the popular Holy Post Podcast.

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