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