Preaching for Congregational Vitality

This post originally appeared on the Diocese of Oklahoma’s News and Events page on April 30, 2018. 

By The Rev. Canon Susan Brown Snook, Canon for Church Growth and Development

What role does preaching play in leading a congregation toward vitality? Given that a priest’s best opportunity to communicate with parishioners each week is a 12-minute sermon, how can our preaching help a congregation grow, spiritually and numerically?

I posed this question to my good friend, the Rev. Dr. Adam Trambley, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Sharon, Pennsylvania. He offered some helpful ways to think about preaching.

First, he says, think of your preaching over a year or a multi-year period as one long sermon, “trying to create in effect a continuous sermon that weaves through an extended period of time. You’re not just thinking about what the readings say this morning. You’re thinking about where you want your congregation to go, and what to say about today’s lectionary, this congregation, and this community that will move you toward that place.”

Every congregation has its strengths and weaknesses, says Trambley. Following the Natural Church Development[1] approach, he points out that according to the theory, taking the next step in congregational vitality means shoring up a congregation’s weaknesses. Natural Church Development describes eight components of congregational vitality: empowering leadership, gift-based ministry, passionate spirituality, effective structures, inspiring worship, holistic small groups, need-oriented evangelism, and loving relationships. The weakest component of this mix is the one a congregation needs to improve to grow, spiritually and numerically.

Based on this theory, Trambley says, “you have to know where you’re going and what needs to be addressed, and you have to weave those together over time. If you want a congregation to change, you can’t just give one sermon that gives the answer, because 30% of the people won’t be there to hear it, and people don’t change that quickly anyway. Even a 4-week sermon series can be helpful, but that can lead to a situation where everyone says, okay, evangelism is the thing for Advent, but in Epiphany we’re moving on to something else!”

So if we know that evangelism, for instance, is the thing we need to work on over the next 18 months, then Trambley says we need to think about that component every week. “How can I touch on that issue in this sermon? It’s about slowly changing their language and their thinking so they come to expect that’s what we’re talking about, but not so they’re hit over the head with it as if they’re wrong. Instead, they’re just slowly introduced to this idea over and over again. You describe the ways scripture talks about this issue until it sinks in. You choose stories and illustrations that speak about that issue. When you preach, you’re constantly looking at ways you can give examples of where this is done in the community or the congregation, things you can lift up as ways you saw God at work this week. You praise the people you saw doing those things, without ever saying negative things about the places where it’s not happening. You lift it up so that people want to join in. You admit your own struggles with that component and you highlight any nascent growth you see happening in that area. It can’t all happen in one or three sermons.”

I asked how Trambley incorporates this approach with the scriptures in each Sunday’s lectionary readings. Of course he uses the lectionary, he says. But with four lectionary readings each Sunday, he says, “you can almost always find a point that helps people move in the direction you believe God is calling them to go. The point is to preach strategically, with an end in mind for the congregation. Even if the main point of that week’s sermon is another topic, and the focus of most sermons will be on another theme, I still try to find a place to spend at least a sentence or two on my long-term goal.”

“What I want to do over time,” explains Trambley, “is give people a language they don’t have that is positive and compelling and relates this area they need to grow in to the Christian faith, allows that to seep into the whole congregation, so if there’s one group that wants to take positive steps in that area, there’s room for that to happen. You’ve lifted it up, helped them see how it fits. Others might start taking small steps in that direction too.”

If you are a regular preacher in a congregation, how have you used your preaching to support congregational vitality? How have you preached to develop disciples and move the congregation toward mission? I would like to hear your stories. Contact me at CanonSusan@epiok.org.

The Rev. Canon Susan Brown Snook
Canon for Church Growth and Development
Email: CanonSusan@epiok.org 

 

[1] This approach is described by Christian Schwarz, Natural Church Development: A Guide to Eight Essential Qualities of Healthy Churches (ChurchSmart Resources, 1996).

“Talking God” – Book Review

Talking God: Preaching to Contemporary Congregations by Albert R. Cutié

A Review by Adam Trambley

talking godAlbert Cutié’s Talking God is a short, accessible book that reads like a coffee conversation on preaching with a thoughtful and experienced practitioner.  Albert Cutié, known to many as “Padre Alberto”, had a daily talk show broadcast to a national and international audience, as well as a column in the Miami Herald’s Spanish language publication.  Originally ordained a Roman Catholic priest, Cutié joined the Episcopal Church in 2009 and preached at the 2012 General Convention.  Talking God is a based on his Doctor of Ministry thesis.

Talking God is filled with interesting tidbits and thought-provoking ideas.  His first chapter looks at six preachers of the past four hundred years. He talks about the vocal quality of preaching used by John Wesley, the ways that Bishop Sheen engaged a wide American audience, and credibility and connection that Joyce Meyer’s use of her own personal experiences offers.  In other chapters, he looks at topics including the ways that new technology is changing people’s listening habits and the importance of the proper use of humor in homilies.  To connect with contemporary audiences, he discusses the need for enthusiasm, creativity, prayer, and sermon structure. He also shares his strong opinion on the importance of not preaching from a text and the importance of preachers focusing on the delivery, as well as the content, of their messages.

While Cutié provides much for preachers to ponder, he offers little in terms of concrete advice that would help a reader implement his ideas.  His idea of having a sermon evaluated by small group of people each week is excellent, but the tool he provides is far from the best sermon-evaluation instrument available.  Anyone looking for help developing the kind of effective sermon structure Cutié advocates will need to look elsewhere. (I personally recommend Paul Scott Wilson’s The Four Pages of A Sermon as a starting place.)  Some of his other points, such as his experiences with technology in worship and even his opposition to full-text preaching, come from his personal experience with no data to back up his claims.  What he says is worth thinking about, but others may disagree based on their own contexts.

Cutié’s book is a helpful one to those interested in thinking about the craft of preaching and how it is changing.  While he provides few compelling answers, the questions Cutié raises are important ones for preachers and the future of the church.

Rev. Adam Trambley is Rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Sharon, PA

Sabbatical Church Hopping

This is a reprint from Father Adam’s blog “The Black Giraffe” November 1, 2015

Today is the last day of a three month sabbatical.  During that time, my family and I have had the opportunity to visit a variety of other churches.  We have been to Episcopal churches, other mainline churches, evangelical churches, “mega-“churches, and an African-American church.  Here are some thoughts about those experiences.

1. In general, the quality of preaching is disappointing.  I could easily believe that the decline in church attendance is due solely to bad sermons.  In more than half the churches I visited, the quality of the preaching would have made me think twice about ever returning.  The four sermons not in this category (and yes, there were only four of them) were preached in an Episcopal church, an African-American Church, a mainline church and an evangelical church, so I’m not worried about style, but of substance.  The award for “Best Sermon Delivered To My Family While on Sabbatical” goes to Craig Thompson of East Side Church, Sharon, for his preaching on the paralytic being let down through the roof to see Jesus.  The criterion for the award is that his exegesis and delivery made enough of an impression that my daughter could talk about what he said two-and-a-half months later.
As a sermon listener, I would much rather hear a sermon from someone who has clearly been studying the scripture, trying to live it, and has some good news they desperately want to share with me, even if the sermon has serious flaws, than someone much more polished and sophisticated who thinks I need to hear their wisdom.
2. If the peace allots enough time for you to do more than hug your family and shake hands with the person in the pew behind you, it is too long.  Most churches have coffee hour to catch up with friends.  As a visitor, my experience of a “warm, welcoming peace” is standing there for five minutes, while every 30 seconds someone smiling comes up, shakes my hand, and then goes off to an extended conversation with someone they know better.  At some point, the well-meaning priest comes over, often asking a question and then ignoring the answer while being pulled away by a parishioner.
When an frustratingly long peace is followed by interminable announcements being read out of the bulletin that I have in front of me and have already read, I become so disengaged from whatever sense of worship may previously have been present that I just want to go home.
3. More sophisticated or professional music doesn’t make for better worship, but hearing people’s voices does.  I have been moved during this time by music done with choir and organ, with praise band, with “worship karaoke”, and with a couple of singers and an acoustic guitar.  Some styles and some songs I prefer to others, but all can be powerful.  What I did find that makes a difference, however, is being able to hear other people singing.  Ideally that means the entire congregation around me, but it also means that the instrumentation, whether organ, electronic, or otherwise, doesn’t drown out the choir or the worship leaders.  When worship music stops being primarily about people singing, something central is lost.  The other unexpected musical discovery of sabbatical: reading song lyrics off screens at the front can make it much easier to sing, including easier to sing hymns (although obviously singing in parts requires words and music in my hand).
door-lock-401714_19204. Unlock the doors and let people know how to get into the church.  Should I have to write this? No.  Do I?  Apparently.  The first church we visited was a terrible experience that started with the doors.  The doors that could be seen from the street were closed with no outside handle to open them.  The doors closest to the parking lot were all locked.  We only found the way into church because a uniformed security guard (!) came and showed us how to go into an adjacent building, up a flight of stairs, across a breezeway, down a hall, and through a door that had a handmade sign taped to it directing us to the sanctuary.  The kicker was when the rambling sermon described all the work the church was doing to reach out to the community.
5. Church pews can be very uncomfortable (and they don’t need to be).  When I am waiting for the opportunity to kneel down or stand up because sitting any longer has become unbearable (a condition worsened by bad preaching), the pew is a problem.  Everybody in the church doesn’t need their own barcalounger, but the environment doesn’t need to be a barrier either.  One church we visited replaced what were clearly very tight upright pews with more slanted, comfortable pews with much more space between them. (I could tell because the floor still had holes where the old pews were bolted in.  So work to be done, but a good first step.)
6. God is being worshiped by good people in a wide variety of settings.  Some of those settings are rather depressing, as congregations dwindle, but people are still gathering to pray for their needs and the needs of others, to praise God, and to do good work in the community.  All the issues mentioned above notwithstanding, in every place I went, I found a part of the Body of Christ, and the Holy Spirit showed up.
The Rev. Adam Trambley, St. John’s, Sharon, PA