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Hurdling Barriers to Spiritual Formation (part 2)

Two pastors tell how emphasizing spiritual formation transformed their preaching.

This is part two of a two-part series. In part one, Kent and Mike described a few of the challenges of preaching for spiritual formation and how their preaching changed when formation became a priority.

PreachingToday.com: If your preaching wasn't previously about spiritual formation, what would you say it was about?

In our sermon preparation and preaching we attempt to expose whether someone really wants to be healed.

Kent Carlson: I wouldn't say our preaching wasn't about spiritual formation. Even before we made the shift, we would do series on spiritual disciplines. But as I said before, I think our preaching had an aspect of entertainment that caused us to ask too often, "Are people enjoying it? Do they smile and shake their heads up and down and bring their friends next week because I'm entertaining?" In other words, now we pay a little less attention to whether or not people like the message.

Mike Lueken: I would agree. It's not so much that we weren't previously interested in spiritual formation; it's just that now we're trying to attain some degree of honesty about the things that drive pastors and the ways in which we define success.

Does traditional homiletic training undermine the goal of spiritual formation in any way?

Mike: When I was going through school, I got the impression that getting people to remember what you said was very important. It was popular at that time for all your main points to start with the same letter, or to say, "Jesus walked on ____" and have everyone say "water," and then write the answer in their bulletin. But I'm not sure that remembering an outline is crucial to spiritual formation.

Maybe the biggest problem, though, is that some people have overemphasized knowing the Bible. Loving and knowing the Scriptures is great, but how much Bible knowledge does the average person need to make progress toward Christlikeness? Maybe it's counterproductive to emphasize knowing the Bible without also emphasizing living it out. We need to emphasize how to apply and incorporate what we already know.

How does listening to sermons fit into the spectrum of spiritual disciplines?

Mike: It is extremely important for a person to regularly gather with others for worship and teaching, but there's no accountability in listening to a sermon. When I listen to a sermon, I decide what I liked, what I didn't, or what I might work on. So much responsibility rests on the shoulders of the listener. If they're hungry and looking for something, listening to a sermon can be a powerful experience. Listening to sermons keeps the vision of who God is and what life with him is like alive in a person's mind. Listening to a sermon as part of a worship experience is a way of being reoriented around the things of God, awakened from our idolatry, and reminded of what is real.

What kind of preaching does and does not lead to spiritual formation? How does this actually affect the way you prepare a message?

Mike: I can tell you from personal experience that the kind of preaching that doesn't contribute to spiritual formation is the sermon prepared as a way to speak to an issue that has annoyed me so much I can't be quiet about it anymore. I preached a message once on worship that I prepared because I was so sick of everybody talking about how they wished worship was this way or that. When I think about who I was while preparing that sermon and what was going on when I delivered it, it wasn't formative for me, and I'm certain it wasn't formative for people who listened.

On the other hand, one passage that has influenced us is the story in John 5 of the paralytic who had been sitting at the well for almost forty years when Jesus came along and said to him, "Do you want to be healed?" From a formational standpoint, that's such a wonderful question. The man had thirty-seven or so years of being formed in his identity as the person who could not walk, who was helpless, and who lived by this pool. If Jesus healed him, he would lose that identity. Maybe he'd rather be the paralytic.

If people say they want to be transformed into the image of Christ, they have to realize that they may have to sacrifice their identity. You must lose your life in order to find it. So in our sermon preparation and preaching we attempt to expose—to the degree we can—whether someone really wants to be healed.

Do you coordinate your preaching with your church's other spiritual disciplines to address the issue of accountability in listening to preaching?

Mike: We have on occasion, but in general we do not. Occasionally we have our small groups discuss questions based on the weekend sermon. There have been times when, through the course of a five or six week series, small group leaders have kept the topic fresh in their group by working through relevant questions. What we have tried to do instead of making the sermon the central thing and building everything off of it is to emphasize spiritual formation and spiritual disciplines, and encourage people to develop a spiritual formation plan for attending to the details of their own lives.

We encourage people to be self-reflective. Instead of asking themselves, How do I stop being angry? we encourage them to ask, Why do I get angry? We've done a ton of work to provide practical ways for people to identify the areas they need to work on, and we touch on those things in our sermons.

Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken are senior pastors of Oak Hills Church in Folsom, California.

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