Collaborative Sermon Planning - Part 1

I recently attended the Drive Conference at Northpoint Church in Atlanta.  During one of the breakout sessions---on planning engaging sermon series---I learned that Andy Stanley, the senior pastor of Northpoint holds an annual two-day workshop with about 25 of his staff members to plan the sermons for the entire year. 

The Northpoint staffer leading the workshop told us that the purpose of doing the planning sessions collaboratively rather than just leaving them up to Andy was fairly simple:  meeting congregational needs.  When more people were involved in the process, she told us, they were better able to determine what the congregation needed to hear, and where God might be leading the church.

The moment that I heard this, I instantly wanted to try it.  The only problem was I didn't get a really good sense of how Northpoint conducted these two-day planning sessions, except for the fact that the participants were all staff members.

I don't have 350 staff members in my church.  I have 11 and many of them are part time.  I also felt like there was something missing in the Northpoint planning model: church members.

So I asked myself, what would it be like if I invited a bunch of church members and staffers into the sermon planning process?
What would it be like to hear right from church members what they thought about preaching, and what they were interested in learning.

I was a little intimidated by the thought of having a room full of people both critiquing my preaching, and working on the planning process with me, but I discovered that I was even more excited about it.  As it turned out, the workshop was one of the best things I could have done.  I don't know why I have never done this before, to be honest.

I decided to write about what we did, and the process we undertook as well as the results of our workshop and my thoughts on the whole thing.  This first installment will be focused on the structure and steps in the process.  It's good for me to do this, because I was basically winging this due to the fact that I'd never done anything like it before.

Preliminary Work
The first task was to determine who would be part of the Workshop.  Our Program Staff members were required to be there as well as my Administrator, who basically runs my life, and took meticulous notes throughout the workshop.  I looked at my Elders next and determined which Elders would be the most active in the conversations, and I also tried to think about age representation as well.  Then I created a short list of about 15 people who were not Elders or staff, but who I thought would have a lot to contribute.  All in all I think I issued invitations to about 25 people.  Over half of them showed up, which was better than I expected.

Prior to the workshop (about a week out) I sent the group a worksheet and asked that they fill the sheet out whether they were attending or not.  Several folks filled the sheet out and emailed them to me even though they didn't attend, which enabled us to include them.  I'll focus on the worksheet content in a moment.

Our schedule included a Friday/Saturday workshop.  Friday was 10AM - 3PM, and we included lunch, and several breaks.  Saturday was 9 AM to 12 PM and we included breakfast, but fewer breaks.

Our supplies were basic: flip charts, markers, pens for participants, Bibles as needed.

The worksheet included four questions, which basically guided our entire workshop.

1.  What does our congregation need?  These are the kinds of sermons that move us, challenge us, and call us to faithfulness (ex: "we need to embrace diversity," "we need to be more welcoming," "we need to trust God more").

2.  What is happening around us?  These are the kinds of sermons that take a look at what is happening in culture, church, in our community, our country and our world.  These sermons help our congregation become "theologians" as we examine what is happening around us and show where God is at work. (ex: "debt crisis," "erosion of marriage," "divisions in our country," etc.)

3.  What texts do we need to study?  These are the studies that take on books or themes of the Bible (ex: "Jona," "Gospel of Mark," "Hard Sayings of Jesus," "Heaven & Hell")

4.  What doctrines, creeds, prayers or deep questions should we study?  This would be sermons that teach on things like the Lord's Prayer, ancient creeds, or doctrines of predestination, baptism, etc.)

Structure of Workshop

10:00 - 10:30 AM - We talked about preaching--what the group liked, disliked, what troubled them about preachers, what critique they had of my preaching, etc.
 10:30 - 11:00 AM - We discussed the kinds of preaching---topical, expository, narrative, etc. and also discussed exegesis vs. isogesis and Lectionary vs. Sermon Series. 
11:00 - 11:15 AM - Break
11:15 - 12:15 AM - We began going over some of the ideas the group had for "What does our congregation need?"
12:15  - 1:00 PM - Lunch
1:00 - 2:00 PM - Finished "What does our congregation need?" and "What is happening around us?"
2:00 - 2:15 PM - Break
2:15 - 3:00 PM - Finished "What texts do we need to study?" and "What doctrines, creeds, prayers, etc."Completed "Seasonal Liturgy"* exercise (see note below)

9:00 - 9:30 AM - Breakfast & Recap of previous day's work.
9:30 - 10:30 AM - Examined the Compilation of Possible Sermon Series** that were culled from the previous day's work.  (see note below) Also began brainstorming creative ideas for teaching.
10:30 - 10:45 AM - Break
10:45 - 12:00 PM - Continued examination of possible sermon series, cast ideas out for other possible sermon series, took the "favorite" series' and determined when would be the best time in the liturgical calendar to preach them.  Continued brainstorming creative ideas for teaching.

*Seasonal Liturgy Exercise
 This was an exercise that I added in at the last minute.  Basically, we took the calendar and outlined each month according to what was happening in our church, what our attendance typically is during that time of year, holidays, special events, etc.  We also identified what liturgical season it was.  This gave us a better understanding of the liturgical rhythm of our church calendar for the purpose of more effectively scheduling our sermon series. 

**Compilation of Possible Sermon Series
This required a bit of midnight oil on my part and some quick work from my Administrator.  Immediately after the Friday session we took all of the notes that we had on the flip chart and transcribed them, along with the Seasonal Liturgy exercise.

I took the organized notes home and began working to create possible sermon series out of the ideas that we all shared in the workshop.  This was key in making the Saturday session more effective.  By taking the ideas, organizing them and determining how they would work as a series, how long the series might be, and even some possible Biblical texts to use, I gave the group a jump start on Saturday.  Rather than starting from a completely clean slate, we had something to ponder.

End Result
We actually took the time to go over all of the possible sermon series that we had put together and we voted on the ones that we thought would be good to do in 2012.  We also determined that a sermon series we brainstormed on Materialism would work this Advent season, and so we covenanted to schedule it.
After we determined which series we definitely wanted to do in 2012, we determined based on the Seasonal Liturgy exercise when we wanted to do them as well.
My Administrator and I figured that we had about 30-36 weeks of sermons, depending on how long we made some of the sermon series. 
The rest of the sermon series that we didn't include this year will be on the table at next year's workshop.

Follow Up
We already have a Creative Planning Team that meets once a month, but it is made up of staff members and focuses solely on our Contemporary worship service.  Now we will be meeting with as many of the participants in the planning workshop as would like to attend to creatively plan for the sermon series that we will be teaching---for both services.  This keeps the group connected and helps them to continue to own the process.

What I Learned
I was incredibly surprised by the way the group got into the process.  At first I think they were uncertain as to what to do, but they soon embraced their work and really started coming up with great ideas and creative ways to teach.
The group also affirmed that they prefer an engaging preaching style, and do not care for preachers who read their sermons.  We did acknowledge that there are some preachers who are effective at reading sermons without actually looking as though they are reading it, but those are few and far between.
I also learned that they prefer shorter sermon series--between 4-6 weeks.  It's not that they can't hang in with a longer sermon series, but the group seemed to want a variety of sermons on various topics and from different books of the Bible.  Shorter sermon series meant that they got to learn more stuff. 
One of the pieces of feedback that the group offered repeatedly was that they appreciate it when I teach them about the historical context of the Biblical passages. 
They also affirmed the sermons where I was able to take the Scripture and---in their words---"make it come to life."  Relevance of the Scripture was something that the group affirmed to be of utmost importance.  They want to know that the Bible is relevant to their lives.
Members of the group confessed that they felt the congregation as a whole lacked Biblical literacy.  Some of the group members admitted that they were somewhat intimated by my asking them to be a part of the planning group at first, because they didn't "know their Bible" very well. 

One very interesting nugget of learning happened towards the end of the workshop.  Several members of the group expressed their gratitude about being a part of the workshop and affirmed the idea of collaborative sermon planning.  But they also shyly indicated that they wanted to make sure that I wasn't just listening to their ideas and "giving them what they wanted."  It was important for the group to know that I was going to prayerfully and carefully consider what needed preaching and not just use the ideas we shared without first being led by the Spirit. 

In Part 2 of this entry, I will go over the sermons series that we planned and also share some of the creative ideas that the group came up with to teach them.

I am still awaiting some of the notes that members of the group took during the workshop, which I will use to give me further information about what they learned, and were thinking throughout the process. 


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