I fell in love with New Church theology as a teenager. I loved the intricate weaving of the stories. I loved the call to pull all experience towards revelation. I loved that it somehow made sense. Not surprisingly, I can remember as an early 20 something considering the ministry.
Thankfully, that was not to be. Instead I found myself a teacher. American History provided much the same enjoyment albeit on a lower plane – the weaving of stories, the call to pull all experience, the making sense.
Many, many years later I returned to that first love. I entered theological school with the hopes of ordination. As we studied sermon writing, the approach was highly scientific, highly deductive, heady. We read from books and notes written decades before – something as a teacher I found disappointing given that I could not envision teaching US History using a textbook from the 1900’s; the current, modern thought was often the thought of the early 20th Century. At that time a static view of truth went unquestioned – the truth was the truth and time made no difference. Of course God’s truth is timeless but to hold that the human forms are as well – I don’t believe that to be true. Thankfully theological training is far different today.
Time does make a difference. I once heard a minister speak of picturing an ornate, golden box holding a precious jewel, the jewel that was the wonderful theology of the New Church. Over time, he continued, people forgot what was in the box. His charge – do not forgot. Open the box.
The service was memorable, deeply moving, the best I heard in several years. I look back on it and believe it includes another sermon I would love to write about what can be the fatal flaw. The flaw is the box as a static entity – a beliefness that the timeless of the box is the just as assured and important as the timelessness of the pearl.
Boxes must change or the gift will be lost. As one author noted, when the container fails to hold the pearl inside in ways that honor the gift, in ways that give life, our job is to break the container, knowing it to be only a temporal, physical thing, with no intrinsic value in and of itself.
And yet we fall in love with forms. Those who no longer love the form, leave. For those to whom the box is a hindrance, leave. Some see it as their parents box, and leave. Others cannnot open up, and leave. Those who remain, who love the box, can become a self-referencing group who love and seek to pass on “the box”as the holder of “the pearl.” The century old notes our theological education was based on, the forms of worship we learned, the practice of sermon writing – all these were decades old boxes, clearly useful in their time, but in need of change or to use a Swedenborgian term, accommodation. One needs only look the incredible power in the line, “Maintenance is perpetual creation” to see what God’s plan is.
Our approach at NewChurch LIVE is not the final “answer.” I make no pretence about being “right.” I am not. We must all take seriously the concept that the variety of worship forms create perfection. In our own human way we are trying to craft a different box, to put it simply, to add to that variety, to hold that same pearl in way that it can be accessible to current generations.
That means moving under a whole new set of assumptions about sermon writing that circle around the concept that ministry is about teaching the truths that lead to a good life. Several key assumptions informed our approach …
1. Sermon writing is a community event from the topics to the content
2. Sermon topics must be engaging and relevant
3. The target audience is the first time attendee
4. Ministers are process facilitators and story-tellers not experts (We are all “experts” in terms of our individual spiritual life. We may not do it well but someone else is not any more “expert” than we are.)
5. Quotes from the Word are short and to the point
6. Leave people with one takeaway. (If there are 3 main points, you have 3 sermons.)
7. The goal: eye level Christianity
In writing the above, of course each one is open to challenge. That being said, I think we must take a serious look at some simple concepts. (1) Jesus called the first two disciples in the Gospel of John with the words, “What do you seek?” (2) Jesus consistently called on the church to find people not for people to find the church (3) Jesus clearly took a “come let us reason together”/ “I call you friend” approach (4) the word “disciple” comes from the same root as “discipline” as in academic discipline and carries a clear connotation being a serious learner. Therefore the great commission could be read “Go out and be learners.” The spirit of the above is captured in this passage.
Life makes the church; but not doctrine, except insofar as it becomes of the life. For this reason it is plain that the church of the Lord is not here, nor there, but that it is everywhere, both within those kingdoms where the church is, and out of them, where men live according to the precepts of charity. So it is that the Lord’s Church is spread throughout the whole world, and yet is one; for when life constitutes the Church, and not doctrine separated from life, there is one Church. But when doctrine constitutes the Church there are many. Secrets of Heaven
We need to tap into that “everywhereness” that God breathes into the world. So what then does the process look like? Below are the steps in the process as we practice them.
Step One: Topic Folders
The sermons are born out of a great deal of reading and listening. One professor, who changed my approach to education, said, “The best teachers have the best filing cabinets.” I believe the same to be true of pastors. In addition to the Word itself, we need to habituate ourselves to collecting information from numerous media resources, literature, poetry etc… Create a sharing culture in your congregation where information is being sent around all the time.
Step Two: Sermon Calendar
With many ideas in hand, numerous series folders started, we sit down with a team to plot out the year. Our general format is 3 -1. That means a 3 part series followed by a 1 off topical sermon. We use the format because it is easy to invite people to. We plug in the givens – holiday series – and then split up the rest. Fall is the most fertile ground for church growth so it deserves special attention.
Step Three: Sermon Research and Construction
After the calendar for the year is set, I then begin the deeper research. Aside from intense doctrinal study, it often includes conversations with other folks, preferably folks OUTSIDE of the congregation. This can even include a brain storming group put together because of their “expertise” in a particular area. Some times these groups meet in person. Other times we do it via Facebook Groups.
The end result is a 1 page sermon chart. It is the sermon itself broken into 5 key elements, written in table form
3. The Problem
4. The Resolution
Step Four: Sermon Writing Team
Maybe the most important step occurs here. This is the conversation with the Sermon Writing Team. It is made up of several team members, several volunteers, and occasionally a guest. There we review the sermon and the group essentially polishes it up.
The importance of this step cannot be overstated. 90+% of the remarks that I will make during the sermon that actually have import grow out of this conversation. It is where the pearl gets its box.
The input of this team leads to the final sermon chart. It must fit on one page in the 5 step format. It must focus on that clear takeaway.
Step Five: Review and Revision
After the service, we meet to discuss how the service went. I ask for candid feedback – and I often get it!
In conclusion, please consider the above descriptive not prescriptive. The size of the congregation, the specific cultural values and aspirations of members will mean that the above does change. Rightly so. Regardless, have fun!