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Mark Sermon Structures

By Justin Rossow

In 2015 we preached through the Gospel of Mark between January and Easter. And it was *awesome.*

Looking back over so many weeks in the same book of the Bible, following the same story line, preaching on the Gospel Lesson week after week after week, I am deeply grateful for the training I received in sermon structures, their variety and their purpose.

Though the development of a specific sermon structure is part of my own contribution to the field of homiletics–a structure labeled Metaphorical Movement by the sermon structure guru, David Schmitt–I found I didn’t resort to my favorite structure even once over the course of those months.

Instead, the dynamics of the text and of the message for the day shaped the form the sermon would take.

This variety in ways of proclaiming God’s work for us in Christ brought energy and vitality to my own experience of preaching. I didn’t get tired of saying the same thing over and over again. I looked forward to preaching week after week.

I didn’t get tired of saying the same thing over and over again.

And I got so much more out of Mark personally by highlighting recurring themes through the different methods available to me because of how I have been taught to approach the preaching task.

Preach itSo if you helped shaped me as a preacher, thank you!

And if you have been one of my hearers and encouraged me with your listening and support, thank you!

And if you are one of my staff partners who have prayed and processed and discussed and imagined and followed Jesus with me, thank you!

I truly love preaching, and you all are part of what I love about it!

And if you are a preacher wondering how to recapture a love for your own preaching ministry, consider how different sermon structures help bring out different aspects of any text or sermon experience. Challenge yourself to try something new at least once next month …

For the record, the sermons I preached between January and Easter had the following structures:

  • Jan 4, Baptism of Jesus (Mark 1:1-13), Dynamic, Four Pages
  • Jan 11, Calling of the Disciples (Mark 1:14-28), Dynamic, Dialogical
  • Jan 25, Jesus Calms the Storm (Mark 4:35-41), Dynamic, Narrative, Lowry Loop
  • Feb 1, Raising Jairus’ Daughter (Mark 5:21-43), Thematic, Comparison/Contrast
  • Feb 8, Feeding of the 4,000/ Healing in 2 stages (Mark 8:1-26), Dynamic, Narrative, Epic Form
  • Feb 15, Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-13), Dynamic, Four Pages

You can check out any of these sermons in the Prezi below. If you listen to several, you may notice that the dynamics of metaphor theory for preaching–Evoke the Source, Map to the Target, Test the Limits, and See Through a New Lens–are present within many of the sermons as I develop a moment of meditation.

But the STRUCTURE of these sermons order these moments of meditation, giving shape and direction to the progression of the sermon as a whole.

Instead of trying to do the same thing every week, these sermon structures allow me to preach both Law and Gospel in unique ways which flow from the unique texts I am preaching on–even when all of those texts are from the same Gospel!

If your preaching feels a little stale, check out different ways to Structure and Develop your sermons. It works for me!!

Mark Overview

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The 7 Tools for Development in Action

By Justin Rossow

Moments of MeditationWhen we preach, we make decision about how we are going to spend our time in the pulpit. Consciously or not, we choose how we are going to help the hearer create meaning out of the sermon. If you would like to be more intentional about how you shape the “moments of meditation” in your sermon, check out Retooling Your Sermon Development.

Here are some examples of the seven different methods of development from that blog in action. I’m sure you do many of these same things. The point isn’t how *awesome* these examples are; they are just ordinary moments in ordinary sermons. But they do evidence a variety of tools for preaching.

Your goal should not be to copy or even critique any of these examples. You don’t even have to like them. And yes, you could probably do better if you gave it some thought and effort.

That, I suppose, is the point of these examples: to encourage you to spend the thought and effort it takes to do something different in your sermon this week.

Whenever you try out a new tool, it will take longer and be more difficult than you think it should. That’s OK. The end product won’t be as good as you were expecting, either. That’s OK, too. You will probably need to work a new tool into your bag over time. In my experience, that effort is paid back in full: I preach better and my hearers listen better when I am intentional with how I develop a sermon. And it’s a lot more fun.

Whenever you try out a new tool, it will take longer and be more difficult than you think it should. That’s OK.

To help you identify and experiment with these tools, here are some examples to get you thinking in a new direction.

1. Narration

NarrationNarration puts an idea or experience into action and helps the hearers imagine what the sermon might look like it real life. Sometimes the narration is personal or historical; sometimes it is taken from fiction or created for the purpose of the sermon. Because there is such variety, the preacher will cue the hearers in on which kind of story this is (i.e. don’t tell someone else’s personal story as if it were your own, and don’t tell a fictional story as if it were real …).

Whatever the genre, narration expresses rising conflict over time that leads to a resolution. To avoid confusion, the resolution itself should tie directly to the experience and idea the preacher is conveying.

The following video segment (13:10-17:46) is taken from the end of a Frame and Refrain sermon I preached in Advent (you can read more about the sermon here). You can hear me set this story up as a fiction, and you will notice the story itself is nothing particularly heroic. Indeed, that’s part of the point: if we only ever tell heroic stories of faith, we risk leaving our hearers feeling like they just can’t connect with God’s Word in real life.

So I am making up a story that fits in the real life situation of my hearers. I build conflict over time–both in the back story and in the moment of confrontation–and the resolution is integral to the sermon itself. In fact, the resolution is stated in terms of the refrain used throughout the sermon: “It’s for me?!”

I also use a series of vivid details to help make the story concrete in the lives of the hearers. While too many details can bog down narration, every story needs enough multi-sensory details to allow the narration to form in the consciousness of the hearers.


2. Character

CharacterCharacter is obviously closely tied to narration. So what’s the difference? Even though the individual is probably embedded in a broader narrative, you are using Character as a method of development if the impact of the story–and therefore the meaning of this moment for reflection–is portrayed through the unique lens of an individual character.

The following is the text of the last scene of a Good Friday Tenebrae service. In fact, each of the seven worship moves in the Tenebrae service had been developed through the eyes of a particular character. The last scene–the entombment–is now viewed through the eyes of the Nicodemus character.

Character often focuses on a person’s response to an event and will often deal with an internal transformation as a result. Both of those features are included in this brief scene.

Nicodemus never expected a resurrection.

Well, that’s not quite correct: Nicodemus expected a resurrection of all the dead at the End of Time. But Jesus, raised all by Himself, in the middle of history? That wasn’t even a possibility.

So Nicodemus joins Joseph of Arimathea, another closet follower of the dead teacher. They carefully and lovingly prepare the body for burial.

The seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloe are supposed to cover up the stench of rotting flesh as the body decomposed. And next year, around Passover, Nicodemus planned on coming back to move the bones of Jesus to a place they would rest until the Last Day.

Nicodemus had hoped this Jesus would usher in the End Times reign of God. But that dream was as dashed and broken as the corpse he cradled in his arms.

Nicodemus must have remembered his clandestine visit to Jesus, under the cover of night, so none of his friends would find out.

What is it Jesus had said? “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in Him.”

This didn’t feel like life, eternal or otherwise. Now all Nicodemus has left to do is bury a dead body. But this time, he doesn’t do it at night. He doesn’t hide his devotion to Jesus. Nicodemus is beyond fearing the fallout for his faith.

With the death of Jesus, Nicodemus becomes a faithful, if confused, disciple.

So what does the death of Jesus mean for your life? Are you ready to follow Jesus a little more publically this week? Do you look for the resurrection of all the dead, or was the resurrection of Jesus enough for you?

What does it mean for your future, for the future of those you love, to know that Jesus became like us even in this way: His body rested for a time in a tomb?

Jesus was hidden away, removed from sight, His body planted in the ground, but only for a time. Tonight, and at every Christian burial, we lay our loved one to rest, knowing—because of Jesus—there is more to the story.

At this point in the service, the last candle still lit—the Christ Candle—was removed from view. In the darkness, the congregation heard the strepitus followed by a promise read from 1 Cornithians 15. The service did not conclude at this point, but rather continued with the celebration of the Resurrection.

3. Serial Depiction

Serial DepictionIn the same Frame and Refrain Advent sermon that closed with Narration, above, I also used Serial Depiction to develop part of the message for the hearers. In the selection below (the video starts at 9:40, but you’ll have to stop it at 12:17 yourself …), you will hear one main idea expressed in four scenes presented in quick succession. This moment of reflection is tied back to the movement of the sermon as a whole with the repetion of the sermon’s refrain, “It’s for me?!”

The main idea in this section of the sermon—that universal salvation is becoming concrete and particular—is repeated in each scene of the Serial Depiction. The scenes are also ordered intentionally, moving from the kitchen sink to a bedroom, and then from an Advent devotion to the experience of communion in worship. The variety of contexts given briefly one after another is the identifying feature of Serial Depiction.

Usually, Serial Depiction will require more than just a couple of sentences for each scene; this example is on the short side when it comes to development. But as always, the context of the sermon determines how these methods are put into practice: at this point in this sermon, a more truncated Serial Depiction seemed appropriate. At other times you may wish to extend these scenes to add a more robust move to a sermon.

What sets Serial Depiction apart from Narration, Character, or Image, however, is the sense of momentum the multiple examples provide. When the scenes do become more detailed and drawn out, pay close attention to how they fit together and build on one another; otherwise you just end up with a series of short narrations.

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A Tale of Two Easters

Preachers sometimes find themselves saying the same thing over and over again. Regardless of the text or day, they feel like they are running the proclamation of the Word through the same theological ringer week after week. Yearly celebrations of the same festival can magnify that feeling: I’ve preached Easter and Resurrection 15 years in a row—what is there left to say?

If the preacher feels that way, you can imagine what the congregation is thinking …

Heresy has killed its thousands; boredom its tens of thousands.

How, then, do preachers tell the old, old story in new and engaging ways not only when the theme varies from week to week, but when the primary focus stays the same from year to year? How do you preach Easter or Good Friday or Transfiguration or Christmas or the Baptism of Our Lord again and again and again without feeling like every liturgical festival is Groundhog’s Day?

One primary answer has to do with sermon structures.

I preached the two sermons below at St. Luke, Ann Arbor on consecutive Easter Sundays. While the primary texts differ, the focus remains the same: the resurrection of Jesus and the reality of death and resurrection in the lives of the hearers.

Although both sermons say some of the same things, they feel very different. The emphasis of the content has changed because the presentation of the content has shifted. In spite of very similar themes, the difference in sermon structure changes the experience of the sermon.

Easter Sermon 1: Four Pages Structure

In 2013, St. Luke was just coming to grips with the fact that one of our long-time and well-loved staff members was not going to recover from his recently diagnosed brain cancer. Such a sudden and public terminal illness in the congregation made the law of our own mortality a very palpably part of our life together.

When I went to write my sermon for Easter, I began with this experience of the hearers: I wanted to use the text and the day to speak Gospel into that lived experience of Law.

David Schmitt suggests that every Lutheran sermon will weave four threads together to make the work of art that is the preaching event: Textual Exposition, Theological Confession, Evangelical Proclamation, and Hearer Interpretation. (You can read Schmitt’s excellent article “The Tapestry of Preaching,” here.)

While we regularly begin the preaching task by considering the text, there are times when we start with the experience of the hearers and work our way back into the text, our theological framework, and the preaching of the Gospel. In this sermon, I began with the experience of the hearers and wove the other three threads into the sermon.

So the people are facing the death of a loved one in a very real and tangible way. Easter is the answer to that experience of the Law. But how to make sure this Resurrection sermon doesn’t sound like a reheated version of last year’s pancake breakfast?

To keep that Easter sermon fresh I borrowed language from a new song we were just learning as a congregation; and I paid close attention to the structure of the preaching event.

In Lent of 2013 we were just learning Kip Fox’s compelling song, “This Dust.” The refrain captures the essence of what I wanted the Easter sermon to do.

Death is all around us;
We are not afraid.
Written is the story:
Empty is the grave.

That refrain, repeated throughout the song, served as the hook for the whole sermon. It shaped the way I phrased both Law and Gospel. It helped add connective tissue and thematic unity. It named two of the worst enemies of God’s people—fear and death—and provided the antidote to both—Jesus’ empty grave.

Armed with this phrase, I still had to decide how I would structure the sermon. In the end, I decided that the trouble and grace expressed in this refrain matched well a structure that expressed the trouble and grace in the text and in the lives of my hearers.

This dynamic sermon structure is often called the Four Pages, not because it’s limited to four sheets of paper, but because there are four distinct moves in the sermon. You can read more about Paul Scott Wilson’s The Four Pages of a Sermon here, but the four basic moves are:

  • Trouble in the Text
  • Trouble in the World
  • Grace in the Text
  • Grace in the World

These four movements can come in any order within the sermon for different effect. Weaving together Fox’s refrain with Wilson’s structure, I got this sermon outline:

  • Trouble in the Text: death was all around the disciples and they faced fear.
  • Grace in the Text: the disciples learned the end of the story—empty is the grave!
  • Trouble in the World: death is all around us and we face fear.
  • Grace in the World: we know the end of the story—empty is the grave!

The words from the song provided unity, but these four movements structured the sermon as a whole. The structure, in turn, shapes and enables the experience of the Law of death and the Gospel of resurrection. The theme is certainly not unique, but the structure expresses the theme in a unique way.

You can listen to the sermon below or read the last draft of the sermon manuscript here.  You can also read an interview with Kip Fox about This Dust here.

Easter Sermon 2: Metaphor Structure

Easter of 2014 came at the end of a Lenten sermon series called The Season of the Cross. We were just finishing a look at different crosses (Anchor Cross, Jerusalem Cross, Ankh Cross, etc.) and we wanted to keep with the theme by talking about the meaning behind a symbol for Easter.

Our preaching team decided to focus on the Easter Lily as a symbol for resurrection. Preaching on that symbol connected Easter worship to the Lenten series on the symbolism of different crosses.

easter-lilyIn terms of the Four Threads, the sermon began with Evangelical Proclamation: because I knew I wanted to preach the Gospel in terms of an Easter lily, I shaped the Textual Exposition, Theological Confession, and Hearer Interpretation accordingly. Of course, the Easter Lily connects directly to themes of death and resurrection, so it fits well with the theme for the day.

Notice that this second sermon deals with some of the very same themes as the first. Perhaps every Easter will deal with death and resurrection as part of the Law and Gospel proclamation. But changing the structure that gives rise to the preaching event changes the experience of the hearers.

Instead of working with the Four Pages structure, I chose to take advantage of the metaphorical potential of the Easter Lily symbol and structure the sermon according to the Metaphor Design. You can read up on this design here.

Briefly, the Metaphor Design takes the basic dynamics of metaphor interpretation and uses them to structure the experience of the sermon. The four moves of this kind of sermon are:

  • Evoke the Source
  • Map to the Target
  • Test the Limits
  • See Through a New Lens

Using these basic dynamics of metaphor, I crafted the sermon that explored the dynamics of an Easter lily and its relationship to a bulb and used that dynamic to look at both the text and the lives of the hearers. All four threads of the tapestry of preaching are present; the structure of the loom as changed.

This Easter sermon felt very different because it was shaped in a very different way. The structure of this Easter sermon was something like this:

  • Evoke the Source: bring the experience and knowledge of bulbs and lilies to mind.
  • Map to the Target: the dead body of Jesus is like the bulb, the New Creation, Resurrection body of Jesus is like the full-grown flower.
  • See Through a New Lens: interpret the text through the logic of bulb/flower (continuity and discontinuity; hard to believe if you didn’t know better; end result is much more alive).
  • Map to the Target: our bodies/lives are like bulbs, our New Creation, Resurrection bodies/lives will be the full-grown flower.
  • See Through a New Lens: interpret our lives through the logic of bulb/flower.
  • Test the Limits: Unlike a lily, we already experience the promise of the New Creation flower even as experience life as a bulb.

The logic of the image is central in this design. The contrast between the bulb and the flower and the inherent relationship between the two is the primary dynamic of the image and of the sermon.

You can watch the final product here:

Though both of these sermons were preached on Easter and both dealt with the dynamics of death and resurrection, the experience of each sermon is very different. This variety of expression arises from the diversity of structure: shaping the progression of the sermon over time will shape the way the hearers experience the sermon.

If two sermons on the same festival with the same theme can end up sounding so different, it stands to reason that changing the structure from week to week will also allow for a variety of expression and experience. Conversely, using the same structure week after week will lead to stagnation, even if the theme and focus change from Sunday to Sunday.

The more sermon structures you are aware of as a preacher, the greater potential for variety you have available.

If all you have is ketchup, everything tastes like a hamburger.

The tale of these two Easter sermons is simple: changing the structure of the sermon changes the experience of the hearers. Preachers can use that insight to help their preaching ministry stay fresh and engaging for their hearers. (And sermon variety is a lot more fun for the preacher, too!)



Advent Sermon Structures

Variety is one of the many benefits of being intentional about the way you structure the sermon from week to week: even when there is strong unity of theme, the experience of the hearers doesn’t become predictable or rote.

Our 2013 Advent series is a case in point. The unifying theme was “Beyond Expectation” and each week we took a closer look at characters and stories leading up to the birth of Jesus.

Each of the weeks had a lot in common–all of the readings were strongly narrative, each included specific characters and their reaction to good news, each had an element of surprise and a sub-theme of preparation. But  the sermons felt very different from week to week.

The first three weeks of Advent provide enough of a sample to make the point: variety of sermon structure keeps the experience of the hearers fresh even when the content is similar.

Advent 1: Zechariah (Story Interrupted)

Advent 1 focused on Zechariah in Luke 1:5-22. The Zechariah narrative features several discrete movements in the story; I wanted to focus on these dynamics, so I chose to shape the sermon with a narrative structure, specifically the structure dubbed “Story Interrupted.”

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The primary feature of the Story Interrupted structure is the retelling of the Biblical narrative with specific breaks in the story where the preacher makes application to the faith and lives of the hearers. You don’t have to tell the narrative this way–you could tell the whole story and then make application or even spend the first part of the sermon setting up the narrative and then closing with the entire story itself. But the Story Interrupted structure particularly emphasizes the narrative moves within the text while also bringing the story home to the hearers.

As I went to break up the moves in the Zechariah story, a second narrative structure came to mind. Eugene Lowry developed his famous “Lowry’s Loop” to help preach parable texts; it has since been applied to all kinds of narrative sermons. Looking at the narrative in Luke 1:5-22, Lowry’s basic elements all seem to be present. So the sermon took on this shape:

Story of Zechariah (Oops!): Faithful people living without evidence of God’s blessing.
Story Interrupted: Do you ever feel that way?

Story of Zechariah (Ugh!): When the promise comes, Zechariah is no longer able to receive it with faith.
Story Interrupted: Maybe you know how Zechariah feels …

Story of Zechariah (Aha!/Whee!): The promise is bigger than the one who receives it.
Story Interrupted: God works like that in your life, too.

Story of Zechariah (Yeah!): The time of silence and preparation leads to songs of joy!
Story Interrupted: Our Advent preparation leads to songs of eternal joy!

Here is the sermon, preached at St. Luke–Ann Arbor.

Advent 2: Mary (Frame and Refrain)

The second week of Advent took us to the Annunciation in Luke 1:26-38. The same angel again shows up with a surprising message. This time, however, I chose to highlight one particular aspect of the story that was central to what I wanted to accomplish in the sermon. In this case, the difference between Objective and Subjective Justification is at the heart of the sermon. Mary clearly believed in God’s universal plan of salvation; in the text, that universal salvation becomes concrete, up close and personal.

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The structure I chose therefore highlighted that dynamic of “It’s for me?!” The “Frame and Refrain” sermon structure uses an image at the beginning and end of the sermon (like a frame) and then brings that image back throughout the the sermon as a way of providing thematic unity (like a refrain).

In this case, the image of finding YOUR name on the biggest and best present under the tree became the introduction, the conclusion, and the unifying image of the sermon. It was also the lens through which I chose to look at the text, the faith experience of the hearers, and the way the hearers live out their faith interacting with those around them. The final sermon structure ended up looking like this:

Frame: It’s for me?!

Part 1: Mary’s experience in the text
Refrain: It’s for me?!

Part 2: The hearer’s experience of the Gospel
Refrain: It’s for me?!

Part 3: A realistic, non-heroic depiction of the hearer living out the Gospel in their own life
Refrain: It’s for me?!

Frame: It’s for me?!

Here’s what the final sermon sounded like:

Advent 3: Joseph (Comparison/Contrast)

Although both of the sermons above come from narrative texts that focus on strong characters who receive an angelic visit and promise of a child, the two sermons feel very different. The different sermon structures shaped the experience of the hearers in different ways.

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The Frame and Refrain structure belongs to the category of Dynamic Sermon Structures and is one of a variety of image-based designs. The Story Interrupted structure is one of the narrative techniques in the category of Textual Sermon Structures (though in this case I doubled-dipped and utilized Lowry’s Loop, which on its own is actually a Dynamic structure). Because I was consciously trying to proved variety for the hearer from week to week, I wanted to do something different when we got to the story of Joseph in week three (using Matthew 1:18-25 as the text).

The three large categories of sermon structures are Textual Sermon Structures, Dynamic Sermon Structures, and Propositional (or Thematic) Sermon Structures. The flow of the text itself shapes the sermon in the Textual Structures; the experience of the hearers guides the shape of the sermon in the Dynamic Structures; the logical relationship between the parts of the sermon provides structure and movement in the Propositional Structures. (For more on these types of sermon structures, follow the link at the end of this article.)

So by the time we get to Advent 3, I am looking at preaching a sermon on Joseph structured in a way shaped by the logical presentation of a primary thought. In no way does propositional mean boring or esoteric (necessarily…); but what provides both unity and movement within the sermon is shaped by the logic of the presentation.

As I prayerfully considered the story of Joseph and the experience of my hearers, I began to hone in on one Propositional Structure in particular: Comparison/Contrast. This sermon structure allows the preacher to develop both similarities and differences between the text and the lives of the hearers.

I chose to present the story of Joseph one part at a time rather than dividing the sermon into two primary sections. This movement from part to part emphasizes the points of comparison and contrast. Moving from whole to whole, on the other hand, helps the hearers remember the two primary topics being discussed.

By the time I was done, I had this sermon structure prepared:

Introduction: That’s not what I expected!

1. Seeing godly character and striving to be like that.
A. Joseph: faithful to the law and compassionate, obedient to the Word and humble.
A1. Us: compare/contrast

2. The kind of God we have
B. Joseph: God at work in confusing situations
B1. Us: compare/contrast

3. Hold on to God’s Big Picture promises
C. Joseph: name Him Jesus (Yahweh is Salvation); Emmanuel (God with us).
C1. Us: compare

Conclusion: So much more than I expected!

Even as I preached this sermon, I was aware of how different was from many Law and Gospel sermons I have heard (and preached) over the years.

The development here is from least important to most important, which somewhat surprisingly places the sanctification preaching at the very front of the sermon rather than at the end.

Also, the Law/Gospel dynamic is not limited to two large chunks in the sermon: part 1, LAW; part 2, GOSPEL. Instead, there is a Law/Gospel dynamic in both the second and third sections of the sermon.

Providing this kind of variation in sermon structure helps the hearer engage in the material more actively from week to week. This variety also increases the chance that different kinds of learners and hearers in the congregation will feel engaged regularly.

Here is the sermon on Joseph:

Three sermons in a row, all in Advent, all from the Gospel lesson, all based on narrative texts with primary characters, Gabriel the messenger, and the promise of a Savior. Yet three very distinct sermons structured in three very distinct ways.

As a preacher, I find sermon structures to be tools that help me find joy, creativity, and insight as I interact with the text on behalf of the people God sends me to week in and week out.

To learn more about sermon structures, check out David Schmitt’s contribution to Concordia Seminary’s web page: http://concordiatheology.org/sermon-structs/


Patterns of Belonging

Who’s on your rope?

In his book Organic Community, Joseph Myers describes four different “patterns of belonging” we all need in order to experience a sense of community. Myers doesn’t tell us what to do to experience belonging; he describes how belonging takes place. And he doesn’t suggest we necessarily move from more loosely connected relationships to more intimate ones: we all need a variety of relationships to feel like we belong. Based on the aspects of community described by Myers, you can think of your faith family as a place to connect in vital ways to a variety of other disciples on this same Journey of Faith.

  1. PUBLIC BELONGINGYou know what it’s like to be connected to a group of people you may or may not know because you share something in common; whether you are a UT fan or an OU fan, you wear the colors, know the lingo, watch the game, high-five the fellow fan you’ve never seen before as you celebrate a victory.This kind of “public belonging” is an important aspect of your social life, also at church. You may simply find comfort in being in your sanctuary with other people who are on the same journey of faith. You know some of the “lingo,” you like going to the “game,” you’ll smile and shake hands with a stranger because they are also a part of your church home.You have more of these public relationships than any other kind of connection, and that’s OK. It’s good to belong to the family of God at a specific local congregation, even if you never get to know everybody’s name. You’re glad to be around other Christians and they’re glad you’re here!
  2. SOCIAL BELONGINGBesides public belonging, most of the relationships you have belong to the category of “social belonging.” These are people you know well enough to ask a smaller favor of them. They might be people who share your pew or who sit at your table in Bible class. They might be people you sing next to in choir, serve next to on a board, or ride next to in our motorcycle club.These kinds of social relationships are important because they allow you to express who you are and tell your story to other people in a way that strengthens your own sense of identity. For Christians, being able to speak about your faith walk comfortably with those in your social group at church helps you understand better what God is doing in your life. It also makes it easier to share your faith with others when the opportunity arises.You don’t have to know everyone to feel like you belong at your local church, but as you become more and more connected, it’s important to have some people whom you know and who know you on a first name, social level. After all, sometimes you want to go where at least somebody knows your name . . .
  3. PERSONAL BELONGINGJust as social belongings can grow out of public relationships, personal belonging can grow out of social relationships. Everybody needs a few people with whom to share their own private (though not intimate) opinions or views. You might call these kinds of people “close friends,” and friendships develop over time.Some of the people in your social community get connected to you over time until you find yourself sharing your own personal joys and sorrows. You don’t need to be close friends with everyone at your church, but you do need some people in your life who will share your burdens, prayers, and joys.Do you have someone you would call if you had to go into the hospital or if you found out your mother was going in for surgery? Who would visit you if you were laid up for a month, or bring you a meal if your oven blew up? Though you might smile at everyone in worship and you might call a few people by name, you also need a small number of Christian friends that can support you in times of difficulty or sorrow, success or joy. These are the travelers to whom we are most closely connected on this faith journey. Who’s on your rope?
  4. INTIMATE BELONGINGIn Organic Community, Joseph Myers wants you to know that people don’t need to progress from the less intimate to the more intimate relationships to be good Christians or even to be healthy people. Everybody needs a variety of patterns of belonging to have a sense of community in their lives. Your most intimate relationships may not be with people at your local church, and that’s OK—but, just like everyone else, you do need one or two “best friends” that can share your most personal hurts and joys.A fellow Christian who knows you well enough to listen to your failings and offer forgiveness, listen to your struggles and offer encouragement, or just plain listen when you’re having a bad day—they are a gift from God and one of the ways God works in your life through His Word.

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So where are you on this journey?

Take a moment to assess where you are in each of these areas. Who comes immediately to mind in these different categories? Do you find any gaping holes in your patterns of belonging? What gets in the way of building positive relationships with others in your life?

Go a step further and consider how these patters of belonging relate not only to your church family, but to your relationship with Jesus. Are the patterns of belonging you currently experience encouraging you to cling to Jesus and follow Him just a little closer this week? Or do your most important relationships seem to lead you father away from God and His Word?

Being a follower of Jesus doesn’t mean you have to get rid of all your relationships that aren’t church-based–in fact, Jesus was known as a “friend of sinners!”–but if none of your patterns of belonging support your faith walk, you will find it hard to grow. (In fact, you’ll likely find yourself moving backwards!)

So what do you think? Do you need to develop more relationships with people who don’t know Jesus? Or do you need to find the support of a few fellow travelers on the Way? God’s intention is that we have both. So where are you on the journey of faith?

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That One Time I Accidentally Said, “Kiss My A**” Three Times During the Gospel Lesson

I plead ignorance on this one.

But the situation still brings up legitimate questions of communication, cultural norms, and offense as a preaching technique that Jesus seemed to use, but maybe we shouldn’t …

OK; here’s the situation. I’m preaching on Luke 14, the Parable of the Banquet where the rich guests who were invited (and RSVP’d, by the way) all give the lamest of excuses for not showing up after the caterers have already put the food on the serving table.

As a lead in to the sermon, I am reading the Gospel Lesson, Luke 14:1-24. Now, friends, 24 verses is a lot of reading to do straight up from the pulpit, so fearing an onset of sudden narcolepsy, I chose to present the lesson as much as read it. Those verses include several different conversations and interactions and at least two different parables, so using the space of the sanctuary seemed like a good way of breaking up the reading and making it more understandable for the hearers.

And that was the goal, making it more understandable for the hearers. So I played the opening scene with the man with dropsy to one side of the congregation. The table with the Pharisees I imagined on the other side. The conversation with the host of the banquet was demonstrably an aside. A teacher of the law piped up from back at the table, and Jesus answers with a parable. So far, so good…

Here’s where I ran in to trouble.

I wanted the hearers to get a handle on just how offensive the guests were when they reneged on their RSVP. I mean, “I just bought a field and now I have to go see it???!!!” How lame can you get? I have to go watch the paint dry, I have to go trim my nose hairs, I have to go feed my fish, Mr. President, so I can’t make it to the ballroom for the dinner now that the food is being served!

It’s not only rude, it is a conscious rejection of the relationship and equal social status implied by accepting the invitation in the first place. These guys aren’t just too busy, they are intentionally trying to ostracize the host!

So I wanted to get some sense of that across to the congregation as I read the Gospel Lesson. So after each, “Please excuse me,” I added a hand gesture.

Mind you, it was not the first hand gesture I thought of in this context. Nor was it the second, I might add. Overall, I thought my filter was working quite well.

So I was mildly surprised when my own Mother graciously asked me afterward, “Justin, what does sticking your thumb on your nose and wiggling your fingers mean to you?!”

I told her I thought it was roughly equivalent to sticking both thumbs on your temples and waving moose antlers at someone, kind of like saying Na-na Na-na Boo-boo, or sticking out your tongue. That’s when dear old Mom dropped this one on me: “I always thought it meant, Kiss my a**.”


Thanks, Mom.

Now, to her credit, my Dad thought the same thing. I did a non-scientific poll over the next couple of days, and it came back about 50/50: half the people thought the gesture meant a more general disrespect for authority, the other half thought it was a specific invitation for lips to meet glutes.

In my own defense, I’ve done as much Google searching as I can stand on the subject, and I cannot find the more narrow meaning listed, though “thumbing your nose” does have some interesting variations and etymology.

But it doesn’t really matter if I can find it in a dictionary; meaning is in the eye of the interpreter. Some of the people in a worship service at my church are sure they saw their pastor use a hand gesture that meant something specific and vulgar while reading the Gospel lesson!

So the real question is, is it ever OK to give offense as a communication device?

Is it ever OK to give offense as a communication device?

When I considered presenting the Gospel lesson in a somewhat dramatic format, I risked offending some people. I know our crowd, and that was not a concern for me.

When I chose even a mildly disrespectful hand gesture to accent the meaning of the text, I risked offending some people. In this case, the risk seemed small to me and defensible based on what I wanted to do in the sermon.

Had I thought my people would think the gesture was more vulgar and rude than I intended, I would have chosen differently.

But why?

Because giving that kind of offense in this context would have gotten in the way of hearing the message.

At least I think it would have. But the people hearing Jesus speak would have certainly been offended–if not scandalized!–by some of what He said and how he said it. There are times Jesus seems to go out if His way to say something offensive or shocking to wake people up, or tear down their defenses. In those cases, Jesus met hardness of heart and closed ears with a kind of holy offense designed to unclog the hearts and minds of His hearers.

Is it ever OK to do that today? Would you intentionally give offense from the pulpit to make a point?

For me, the preaching ministry of the Church hinges on mutual love between the one preaching and those seeking to hear Jesus in the sermon.

Loving your hearers means not giving unnecessary offense, not putting any stumbling block in front of those who need to hear a Word from the Lord.

Loving your preacher, on the other hand, means listening for Jesus not only because of, but sometimes in spite of, what’s coming out of the preacher’s mouth; putting the best construction on everything; being slow to take offense and quick to understand the best possible intention.

Having a relationship of trust, love, and respect between hearers and speakers in the preaching ministry of your congregation means the preacher will be willing to take risks and the hearers will be willing to overlook failure. Love covers over a multitude of homiletical sins.

Preaching the Word on a Sunday morning is a joint effort of the hearers and the speaker, and Jesus’ Spirit is active in and through both. I don’t think intentional offense fits in that model, though risking offense in order to present God’s Word it almost necessary.

So if you are a member of my family of faith and I offended you with my delivery of the Gospel lesson, I trust you have already given me the benefit of the doubt and forgiven me for whatever offense I gave.

And if you thought the reading of the Gospel lesson was awesome and helped you understand the text better, great! That’s what I intended.

And if you weren’t offended this time around, give it time; I am willing to take risks in the pulpit because I trust your sanctified ears and hearts. Which means I will also occasionally make the wrong decision, or cross the wrong line, or simply mess up.

Please love me and forgive me and know that my heart and soul go into helping you know and follow Jesus, and I could never get in the pulpit in the first place if we didn’t already have that in common.

And if you missed it, you can see the Gospel lesson, and the sermon, below. Just listen with baptized ears…

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You ARE His Witnesses

I had a chance to sit down with a preacher after I listened to his sermon. I find the conversation about preaching can be fascinating, and really helpful for those who face the art, craft, and challenge of preaching on a regular basis.

The text for the sermon came from the assigned readings for Ascension, which we celebrated on a Sunday. With all of the stuff going on in those texts, you have to narrow the scope from what you could say, to what you are going to say. Hearing the thinking behind this sermon preparation process helps preachers refine their own process; and it helps hearers better understand what goes into what they hear on Sunday morning.

In the following interview, Pastor Matt Hein and I talk about how he chose the text to preach on and how he decided to shape the sermon the way he did. You will hear us talk about the structure of the sermon (the way the sermon experience is shaped over time) as well as different moments of reflection within the sermon.

The structure for this particular sermon is called Frame and Refrain, which you can read more about here. This kind of sermon begins with a story or image that helps shape a central thought for the hearers and leads to a clear expression of the theme. That theme is repeated as a refrain several times during the sermon, and the original story or image is repeated at the end of the sermon, and therefore frames the entire presentation.

Although the interview talks a lot about the structure of the sermon and how it worked, you will also hear other important preaching themes: how do you use a personal story from another person’s experience? How do you preach sanctification? How do you approach the text as a hearer first, and secondly as a preacher? These conversations flow naturally from the discussion of the preacher’s experience of the preaching event.

Check out the video and then watch the sermon, below.



Now that you have heard what the preacher had in mind during the preparation of the sermon, listen for those dynamics in the sermon below. As you listen, also pay attention the the way metaphor gets used not to structure the progression of the sermon but as part of the development. You can hear the basic metaphor moves of Evoking the Source, Mapping to the Target, Testing the Limits, and Seeing with a New Lens, especially in the discussion of witnesses and what makes them credible.

Every sermon brings a wide range of dynamics to bear on the preacher, the hearer, and the community. How do you experience sermons on a regular basis? How does learning more about the sermon writing process help you be a better hearer? I find the more I process a sermon with a few other people, either as a preacher or as a hearer, the better I am able to identify what Jesus is speaking into my life and what kind of response He is shaping in me.


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The Dead Sea and the River of Life

by Justin Rossow

The following sermon is based on the vision recorded in Ezekiel 47:1-12. Revelation 22:1-7a and John 4 were also used in worship that day.

We often think of metaphor as using something we know to help us understand something we don’t know. While that may often be the case, it’s hardly a fast rule and has very little to do with identifying what a metaphor is or how it works.

Metaphor is talking about, experiencing, or reasoning through one thing in terms of something else. As far as metaphor is concerned, we can borrow inferences and logic from an unknown and apply it to a known just as easily as the other way around.

In the case of this sermon, I am using something my hearers don’t know a lot about—a vision from Ezekiel and geographic data about the Dead Sea—and using it to shape how they experience something they know well—their own sin and the forgiveness we have in Jesus Christ.

The sermon itself is structured as a Four Page sermon, moving from (1) the Trouble in the Text to (2) the Trouble in the World, followed by (3) Grace in the Text and (4) Grace in the World. In this kind of sermon structure, the experience of Law and Gospel are divided fairly equally in the major sections of the sermon (unlike other structures, where Law and Gospel may be experienced from within each of the moves of the sermon).

In this case, Ezekiel’s vision of the river of life flowing from the Temple of God and transforming the Dead Sea is used as the central image of the text. And, even though the sermon progresses in the Four Pages structure, you can still identify the metaphor dynamics of Evoking the Source, Mapping to the Target, and Seeing through a New Lens.

Here, then, is the sermon.

Sermon Introduction: Evoke the Source

2,600 feet above sea level: that’s how high you would be if, at the time of Ezekiel, you were standing at the top of the broad staircase that led up to the Temple of God in Jerusalem.

From this height, you can go down, down the steps of the Temple, down Temple Mount, down through the city of Jerusalem, down the Kidron Valley, down through the hill Country of Judea, down through the desert region of the Arabah, down into the Jordan River Valley, down, down, down, down, down …

From 2,600 feet above the Mediterranean Sea at the Temple, to 1400 feet below sea level, you have gone down 4,000 feet. You have traveled about twenty miles East and South and three quarters of a mile straight down, to the lowest land elevation on the planet.

And there in the depths, at the lowest point on earth, you find a lake of salt we know as the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is over eight times saltier than the ocean, so full of salt that there are no fish. There are no frogs. There are no snakes. So full of salt, that there is no grass. There is no seaweed. There is no life.

The Dead Sea lives up to its name.

If you or anyone you know has ever been, you probably know it’s easy to float in the Dead Sea. The water is almost 1/3 salt, so even a bowling ball will float! (And by that I don’t mean a person shaped like a bowling ball; I man an actual bowling ball!)

It sounds fun, but if you go, keep your head above water. They say the salt fiercely burns your eyes, and the taste is not just salty, it’s terribly bitter!

The thing I find most startling about the Dead Sea is this: no matter how much fresh water flows into it from the Jordan River or one of its tributaries—no matter how much fresh water pours in, the Dead Sea remains DEAD.

Trouble in the Text: Map to the Target (1)

In our text for today, Ezekiel sees a vision of the Dead Sea. Ezekiel and his people knew about the Dead Sea. They had experience with the Dead Sea. Maybe they even floated in the Dead Sea! And they knew first hand how dead their own spiritual lives could be.

You see, Ezekiel is a priest who should have ministered in the Temple of God in Jerusalem, except that he was with the first wave of Israelites taken into exile in Babylon. Because these people had persistently and relentlessly turned away from the loving embrace of their God, finally, finally, finally, God’s judgment spilled over and washed them away.

Destruction. Captivity. Death. Ezekiel speaks God’s Word to God’s people stuck in the lowest point of their history as a nation. And his word of judgment on the people and their trust in external religiosity is harsh indeed.

According to God’s Word spoken through the prophet Ezekiel, this first wave of exile would not be the last. The city of Jerusalem would be utterly destroyed. And the Temple of God, the sign of the presence of the Living One in the midst of His people, even the Temple itself would be toppled to the ground.

Like Ezekiel’s vision of the valley filled with dry bones, like the view standing on the shore of a sea of salt brimming with poison, there is nothing on the horizon but death.

The righteous judgment of the Almighty burns their eyes and is bitter to the tongue. And nothing they do, no matter how hard they work or how many vows they take, no matter how much they try to change themselves, the Dead Sea remains dead.

Trouble in the World: See Through a New Lens (1)

Maybe you know something of what that feels like. Maybe you have experienced the bitter taste of a failed relationship, a relationship you swore would be different this time! And you worked so hard to be better and kinder and more loving. And you thought you did everything right. Yet the same old patterns of distrust and anger and lies cannot be so easily washed away.

And it’s bitter, O so bitter, when you pour yourself into a relationship and it’s not enough. No matter how much you try to change, you can feel the relationship beginning to wither, and even die.

Or maybe you know what it’s like when the salt of your own tears fiercely burns your eyes. When the diagnosis that seemed so promising has turned grey and hopeless. And after you have tried every medical solution, and explored homeopathic remedies, and prayed and prayed and prayed, and your church prayed, and all your Facebook friends prayed, but nothing you do can change the harsh reality of a terminal diagnosis. You once had hope, but now all you can see is destruction, captivity, death.

Or maybe you know what it’s like to turn your back on God. To make vow after vow to change your attitude or behavior only to break every one. Maybe you’ve gotten caught up in a religion of externals that trusts more in the worship service you perform than the God who wants to meet you there. Perhaps faith has again become stale and salty–turgid, brackish–and your faith feels like it’s about to die.

And no matter how hard you try, no matter how much you want to feel refreshed and renewed, no matter how many Bible study helps you use or spirituality books you buy, you just can’t escape the reality of your own sin. You used to think sin was just your bad habits, and now you suspect it’s your way of life.

And when you reach that low point, when you have gone down, down, down, away from God’s Temple, away from God’s presence, away from God’s promise, you find yourself looking at a horizon of hopelessness, a sea of death.

Grace in the Text: Map to the Target (2)

Ezekiel preached to a people who knew the burn of tears in their eyes and the bitter taste of judgment on their lips. Ezekiel’s vision was expressly given to people who were experiencing death—spiritual, physical, relational death—in their lives and in their bodies.

For the sake of these people who were experiencing death, God takes Ezekiel in the Spirit back home from exile, into a future where the Temple has already been restored, where judgment has already been reversed.

There, Ezekiel himself sees a vision of pure, fresh water, at first just a trickle, coming out from under the threshold of the Temple, from the very dwelling place of the LORD Most High.

As that trickle works it’s way down the Temple steps and through the streets of Jerusalem, the trickle begins to deepen. By the time Ezekiel leaves the city, it swirls around his ankles. By the time he crosses the Kidron Valley, it’s around his knees. As he walks through the Hill Country of Judea, it’s up to his waist.

Down, down, down, the grace of God flows, until by the time it reaches the banks of the Dead Sea, the water from the throne of God is a rushing torrent, a powerful flood that Ezekiel cannot hope to cross.

And unlike anything else in the history of the Dead Sea, this time, this time the fresh water wins! This time the flood of grace makes the change no human effort could effect! This time the living water from the presence of God transforms the lowest place on earth.

Where there was only salt, the fishermen now cast their nets; where there was only death, now trees on both sides of the river bear fruit for life and leaves for healing. Where there was only a valley of dry, dead bones, where poison and barren emptiness had dominated the landscape, now God Himself brings forth renewal, refreshment, life!

Grace in the World: See Through a New Lens (2)

Do you see? Do you understand? That’s not just a vision for ancient Israel. That’s you! That’s your story! That’s the depth of your sin and the barren landscape of your life! And no matter how hard you try, you can’t make yourself better, you can’t dilute the poison, you can’t bring life from the waters of death.

But Ezekiel has a vision to share with you today, even as your eyes burn from the salt of your tears, even with the bitter taste of judgment still on your lips.

Ezekiel looks up and sees water, life-giving water, trickling down from the very presence of the Almighty God.  Down it flows from the steps of the Temple, into the Temple court where Jesus is teaching: “The water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Down the water runs, down to the edge of the Kidron Valley, around the base of Skull Hill, where Jesus is raised by a cross in death. As the Savior is lanced with a Roman spear, blood and life-giving water flows.

Down, down, it courses,
through the Hill Country of Judea, where Jesus was born in a Bethlehem stall,
down through the desert region of the Arabah, where Jesus went toe to toe with the Tempter for you and won,
down into the Jordan River Valley, where Jesus joins the waters of your baptism to His own saving mission,
down, down, down the grace of God flows until it is a relentless river, an overwhelming current, a powerful flood.

And when the water of God’s grace and mercy in Jesus Christ gushes into the lowest part of your life and the deadest corner of your soul, an amazing thing happens: life.

Life! Full and abundant and teaming and free. What you could not by your own effort effect for yourself, the grace of God washes over you in a torrent of tender love.

Gone the judgment. Gone the pain. Gone the separation. Gone the death. A vision of a promise so powerful, that even though it will not bet finally and completely fulfilled until death is washed away forever, already now we experience the shock wave of this eternal transformation.

Already now, relationships begin to heal. Already now, tears are wiped from faces. Already now, sins are fully and freely washed away.


By the waters of your baptism, the eternal river of life determines your reality already now far more than any sea of death ever could.

Already now, you have been buried with Christ by baptism into death and raised with Him to newness of life. Already now, you have received the sign of the cross on your forehead and on your heart to mark you as one redeemed by Christ, the crucified. Already now, you have been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

So that just as much as the vision of the prophet Ezekiel is meant for your present, so also the vision of the apostle John defines YOUR future:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.

The angel said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God who inspires the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place.”

“Look, I am coming soon!”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

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Heading in the Right Direction

Metaphors shape the way we think. Metaphors shape how we make decisions. Metaphors allow us to experience one thing in terms of something else.

The following is a sermon produced by a student in a course I teach on metaphor theory. The assignment was to put the basic elements of metaphor theory to use in a sermon.

In this case, the fairly broad conceptual metaphor LIFE IS A JOURNEY is used to think through a text from Galatians 5:1, 13-25. The preacher spends almost half of the sermon developing the logic and inference structures in the source domain of Road Trip (a kind of JOURNEY) so that the logic of driving, distractions, and mile markers can be applied via Galatians 5 to the lives of the hearers.

I like what he did here.

He starts with Evoking the Source in a couple of different storied settings with a particular emphasis on the conclusions he is able to draw from his experience of journey. Then he combines Mapping to the Target and Seeing with a New Lens: he identifies connection points and develops the reasoning from the source in the realm of the target.

That mapping of reasoning and inference is one of the strengths of preaching metaphor: what seems natural and obvious in the Source will seem natural and obvious in the Target. This sermon puts that dynamic of metaphor to good use.

The only metaphor move the student left out of this sermon is Testing the Limits. And that move is not always necessary. For more on preaching metaphor, go here.

Below is the student sermon. I bolded important phrases and added brief section headers. Try applying this technique either to a whole sermon or to one section within a different sermon structure. And if you do, focus on what makes the logic of the source available for reasoning in the target.

Evoke the Source (Part 1)

Describe the Source (in this case, JOURNEY) in such a way that the hearers not only identify a specific domain of knowledge and experience, but can begin to reason in terms of the dynamics of this domain.

It should be impossible to ever get lost in today’s world. Technology makes available to us information that would have taken a map, a compass, a calculator and a pen and paper to figure out. Now instead I simply have to punch in my destination and listen to a polite voice direct me straight to my destination.

Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 4.08.55 PMIf you are like me you like to see where you are going. I always find it easier to get back to a place once I’ve been there at least once. Just look it up on google and not only can you see it on a map, but you can see a satellite image of the area. Even more than that, for many locations you can zoom all the way in and get a street view of the location. You can even look around, rotate the camera, and figure out where you want to park, all from the comfort of your own desk chair.   So how is it that somehow I still manage to lose my way sometimes?

With this much technology at our disposal to help us reach our destination, there seems to be even more trying to direct us elsewhere. Driving from my vicarage in Des Moines to visit my, then fiancé now wife, in Chicago I would be on 80 and 88 for most of the trip. So I’m in my car for about five hours traveling through western Iowa and eastern Illinois.

These are not typically considered hot spots for excitement or entertainment. There were in fact some cases where it would just be myself, a semi, and a farmhouse, that and a whole lot of corn. But then an exit would come up, and the signs would start. Some were helpful, mile markers, the exit number, but most, most were trying to tell me about the world’s largest thimble, or the world’s largest truck stop.

Some signs were full of color, some used clever phrases, others were videos playing short, silent commercials on massive screens. All were designed with one thing in mind, to get me to pull off the road. (The world’s largest truck stop did manage to pull me away a couple times, their sign said they had a Wendy’s and I just couldn’t say no to spicy chicken nuggets.)

Distractions abound and before we know it we have taken one turn too many looking for the world’s greatest doughnuts, and now we’re trying to figure out if we took one left and a right or two lefts. But that’s alright, because we have our GPS, and it will never fail us.

Evoke the Source (Part 2)

At least that was my confidence when a group of friends and I were driving across Germany. We knew the number of the highway, we knew the name of the town where we were heading and the signs were fairly intuitive but like any car trip we needed to eventually stop to get gas. It was getting late and was already dark outside, but the gas station itself was lit up like a Christmas tree. It was so bright though it was difficult to see anything other than what was lit up.

This stop off was huge, too; it had two levels, a hotel, and so getting back in our car we took a look at the GPS to see how much farther we had to go. Just a couple more hours, but in order to get back on the road it said we had to wind down to the other level and that from there we could get back on the highway.

So I listened. I wound the car around and found myself on an onramp, saw the headlights of the cars on the autobahn in front of me a hundred yards away, and started speeding up. As I slowly curved along the onramp a guardrail suddenly appeared directly across the ramp in front of me.

Some burned rubber, a couple words that aren’t in the bible, and our little Ford Fiesta came to stop just feet from the rail. In the moment of silence that followed, our GPS in a very polite British accent informed us to go straight, merge onto highway. Sometimes sources that appear to be well informed can still lead us astray even in moments where we think we know exactly where we are.

So how do we find out whether or not we are going the right way? Those mile markers and exit signs I mentioned briefly, those signs we usually just ignore because they are so plain and boring, those are the same signs that let us know where we are and whether or not we are heading in the right direction. Chicago, 100 miles. Berlin, 250 km.

These signs aren’t flashy, they aren’t usually all that colorful, they are plain and simple. They are, however, clearly understood and clearly visible. Turn right, I 80 east, and I know where to go. And in the worst case scenario, I ask for directions. And let’s admit some of us might struggle with this more than others, but when it comes down to it, hearing directions can be the quickest way to get us back on track.

Map to the Target and See with a New Lens

Help the hearers see how the narrative relationships and inferences available in the Source Domain not only correspond to aspects of the Target Domain, but show how they help us think about, make decisions about, and experience the Target Domain differently.

A. Distractions

In our text, we find Paul encouraging and warning the Galatians. His warnings are directed against the desires of the flesh, because they seek to guide them away from the Spirit. How often is this the case with us?

Just turn on a television and in just a few minutes you will witness advertisements for some things harmless and even helpful, but many that try to stir up desires that walk a different path than that of the Spirit. Gratuitous sex, violence, and the like are not only packaged in shows and movies but even in the very advertisements in between. Suddenly sex outside of marriage isn’t wrong or just something that is ok, it is commonplace, even expected. One wrong turn, and then another, and then another, and suddenly we are struggling to find our way back.

B. Unreliable Directions

So where do we turn from there? There are many people who claim to know the truth; many of them sound quiet impressive. There are countless religions, rational empiricists, many people who know a great deal more than we do about the world and many of them claim to have the truth.

And when we turn to them we hear a small voice say “recalculating” and then they turn us in a direction that may seem trustworthy. God could not have created the world in 6 days, science has proven this can’t possibly be the case. Or that humans just aren’t biologically inclined to be monogamist creatures. Truth is what you make of it, just do whatever makes you happy. God only lets good people into heaven so if you want in you had better make sure you do enough. The list goes on and next thing we know we’re staring a guardrail down.

So with all these competing distractions all threatening to lead us astray, how do we know where to go? How do we know how to live? The obvious answer is by the Spirit, that’s what Paul says, but how do we know what that is?

mile markerC. Reliable (but Ordinary) Directions

The answer is in the writing of the epistle to the Galatians itself. How did the Galatians know? Paul told them; a guy gave them directions. A guy inspired by the Holy Spirit that then passed the Spirit onto them by the Word in Baptism. A Spirit that is constantly at work against all the distractions we face daily on our journey. The Spirit who never tires of turning our eyes away from constant distractions and empty promises and instead keeps our hearts and minds fixed on our destination. We know our beginning and our end. Baptized into Christ we await His return. But in the meantime we are not left to wander alone.

Week after week the Word keeps us on the path directing us towards Christ. Jesus, that way. We are given directions in preaching, the sacraments, the big signs, but also in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control. These are all gifts that we often overlook, mile markers that let us know we are walking in the way of the Spirit. And we know these are true signs we can follow, we can know that this guy Paul is giving good directions, we know we are going the right way when they align with the scriptures, when they point us back to Christ.

The Spirit works in many and various ways to fight off and drag us back from the many distractions and competing messages of this world. He brings the Word to us in the scriptures, through inspiring and guiding writers including Paul. He brings the Word in sermons where the Word is preached faithfully. He works through the sacraments bringing the gifts of God to His people. He works through our prayers and in ways I can only guess.

Every temptation we face, He is there guiding us along His path. Every false voice, He is there nudging the wheel back along the right road. And those times we find ourselves lost, He is there to guide us back to Christ and the promise of life in Him. Amen.

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Fostering Hearing God’s Word Together, Online

By Justin Rossow

Part of any preaching ministry is fostering hearing ears and receptive lives. Scripture invites us to ruminate on God’s Word, to steep our hearts, minds, and daily lives in His promises.

In today’s Social Media culture, preachers have unprecedented tools for supporting the mutual conversation of the saints in the weekly lives of their hearers. Faithful reception and processing of weekly proclamation can take place communally, online.

Take this blog for instance:

All for the Price of a Coffee

Rearview MirrorRick, one of our members and a truck driver by trade, was excited to share with me how the last week’s sermon had affected his real life experience. He told me the story in great detail; I immediately walked into my office, typed it up as word for word as I could remember, and then emailed it to him, asking if I could use it on our blog. He was pleased to say yes.

Capture stories people share about God’s work in their life through the Word; it encourages others to listen with attention and intention, as if God wanted to be part of their daily lives.

Here’s another:

On Being Dull

1 Gallon of Milk in a milk carton on a shiny table with white background.We have a team of writers at our congregation who have agreed to show up on Sunday morning and pay attention as if God actually had something to say to them this week. They are looking to take something from God’s Word and let it affect their faith and their life. And then they share what that looks like for them.

This blog is a response not only to a single sermon, but to one of the themes that came out of an Epiphany to Lent sermon series on the Gospel of Mark. The way Krissa shares how the Word is at work in her life invites us to imagine the Word at work in ours.

OK, one more, just so you get the idea I’m talking about:

The Ordinary

laundryOn this particular week we had a guest preacher from Lutheran Bible Translators. While the preacher covered quite a bit of ground in his sermon, Miriam picks up on one point–perhaps not even the most central point of the sermon–and hears comfort for her hectic daily life.

The point of inviting lay response to sermons is not to get the hearers to regurgitate your sermon, but to take something (anything!) with them from God’s Word in worship out into their week. In this way, the holy and the ordinary intersect and inform one another.

Worship in My Week

What We Do

At St. Luke Lutheran Church, we set out to make our online presence a content-driven, discipleship-focused experience. The central terminal of our online activity is our web page, www.stlukeaa.org.

And one of the first things we did when we transition to a content-driven, discipleship-focused model was to enlist lay writers to respond to worship in ways that modeled applying God’s Word in their week.

We schedule writers by Sunday of the month, with a couple of backups, just in case.

Their marching orders? Listen for what God has for you in worship this week and tell us how Jesus is using that in your daily walk. The result is a weekly response, most often to the sermon, which models a receptive hearing of God’s Word.

Why We Do It

Our writers regularly report that they experience worship differently when it’s their week to write. They make sure they attend worship with almost no exception. They listen carefully, not just to the sermon, but to the words read, sung, prayed, and confessed. They take notes, pray for open ears and hearts, ponder the Word, and keep their eyes open for how that Word might be trusted more fully, lived out more faithfully, or more regularly relied on for peace, comfort, or forgiveness.

In short, they worship like we are all supposed to, all the time.

But they also notice a change in their worship over time. Given enough once a month focused hearing, they can’t help but start paying attention other times, too. It’s as if once the connection between God’s Word in worship and God’s Word in my week is turned on, it’s hard to turn off.

But we don’t ask our lay writers to respond just so they can grow in faith and following; when other hearers of God’s Word see this kind of reception in the pew next to them, the attitude starts to rub off.

But more than a receptive attitude, the kinds of responses we get count as another way of bringing God’s Word of Law and Gospel to bear on the lives of real people in real need.

Theologically, these blogs end up under the category of the Mutual Consolation of the Saints: fellow believers in their everyday conversation are speaking Jesus into the real life situations of their family, friends, and acquaintances.

When the Word comes not only from the pulpit, but from the person down the street, you hear that Word differently.


This kind of sermon response writing is only one of the flavors on our discipleship content blog. But the Worship in My Week series is foundational to what we do.

While we average around 750 in weekend attendance across five services and three geographical locations in our multisite, our daily average of page views on our website is 400-450. That means every two days we have more interaction with people online than we do in weekly worship.

Because of other social media like Facebook and Twitter, the Word preached and taught in our congregation gets shared, commented on, discussed–read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested, online. And because all of our content can easily be shared, our blog posts have a way of finding their way into the homes and lives of people who would never darken the door of a church.

So how might you experiment with developing this faith conversation in your setting? Here are some general guidance followed by some very doable action steps to get started.

General Guidelines for Fostering Hearing Ears, Online

1. START (but don’t stop) with SPECIAL INVITATION

Don’t put an ad in your church newsletter. (You still have a printed newsletter? Seriously? You know how many of those tree-killing, dead-end communication pieces end up in the landfill?! Seriously, dude, commit to a discipling, content-driven web page!)

Listen to the kinds of things people say to you after worship. If they comment on how much they liked your sermon, ask them what was meaningful for them. Look for thoughtful response. And keep your eyes open for stories of how God’s Word showed up in their week.

Your people want to listen. And they believe God is speaking life and forgiveness and faithfulness into their lives. Go out of your way to extend a special invitation to someone you think gets it. Ask them to listen intentionally and prayerfully. Invite them to put into words what Jesus is doing in their life this week. And see what happens next …

2. Foster an ACTIVE life of PASSIVE reception.

We know we can’t take any credit at all for salvation; at the same time, the means God promises to use can be disregarded, marginalized, and misused.

The tension inherent in an all-powerful Word that can be rejected or ignored is felt by the hearer who recognizes the work of the Spirit in, with, and under the Word, AND at the same time, eagerly pays attention to the means.

We want our hearers to work hard to receive from worship what Jesus wants to give, without their work sneaking back into the equation of salvation.

hand crafted riverSo we try to instill an attitude of active participation in a fundamentally passive activity. in our writers, but also in the congregation at large. In many ways, the writers are a microcosm of the hearing community. And their development spurs the development of the whole.

You can hear me preach about that active/passive dichotomy here: Paul and Lydia.


3. Allow them to be DIFFERENT from you.

When you recruit a writer, you aren’t looking for someone to regurgitate the sermon. The point of the exercise is not to see if they get all three of your main points or if they can guess your structure. You want people who will listen to the Word and relate it to their own lives.

So don’t grade their work; encourage them to look for where the Word for the day touches their lives in a meaningful way. And take the posture of a fellow hearer; perhaps they will preach something back to you from your sermon that you needed to hear this week.



When working with your writers, make sure they understand you are not asking for miraculous stories of heroic faith or spectacular life change. I mean, those are good, too, but this is not a National Enquirer for church people.

Often times, the stories that resonate most with the community are the ones that show the presence of Jesus or the working of the Spirit in the midst of the most commonplace circumstances.

Allowing the sacred text to invade the space usually reserved for the unsacred helps hearers see ways in which the Word connects with even ordinary lives.

Never Alone

boots1In this blog, a mother of 6.5 writes in direct response to a sermon she heard. She never mentions the pastor, the worship service, or the sermon directly. Yet anyone who experienced the sermon would experience this blog as a real-life application of what was preached.

Notice that the end result of the blog is neither miraculous nor grandiose; just a mom, doing the best she can, overwhelmed with what’s in front of her, but catching a glimpse of God’s heart beyond the mundane.


5. Have a REVIEW PROCESS not a permission process.

Heresy has killed its thousands; bureaucracy its tens of thousands.

That is to say, you don’t want to publish anything damaging to the faith on your blog. (Duh.) But you also can’t be so afraid of making a mistake that no one except the pastor can ever write anything online.

In our context, we have a process for review. Blogs come in from any number of writers. Some already come formatted; others need a featured image or some kind of additional work. They all get read by a volunteer editor. And someone, usually a very part-time staff person, touches it at least once before it goes public.

Sometimes the editing happens the day after it posts. That’s not ideal, but neither is staring at a stack of blogs that can’t go to press until they get edited.

We always reserve the right to take a blog off of our page; and we reserve the right to make editorial changes as needed. If a blog needs serious work, we sit down with the author and talk about what changes have to be made and why.

But we publish far too many blogs for each of them to go through a permission-granting set of hoops. If one of our volunteers or part-time staff has a theological question about a blog, they ask. In general, however, we get good people going in the right direction and let them run.

6. Model HEARING and LIVING of the Word.

The life change you hope might eventually be evident in your people will first be evident in your life. The active engagement in passive reception is modeled not just in the pulpit, but in the life of the preacher.

If your preaching doesn’t change YOU, why would it change anyone else?

I recently spoke to a pastor who had just preached on never letting anyone in your circle of influence be abandoned or alone. “Dang,” he said, “My whole sermon was on not letting people be alone. Then my neighbor calls me up and is going into surgery. He doesn’t have any family in the area. Now I have to take this guy to the hospital…”

Take your sermon into elders meetings and hospital visits and staff devotions and passing prayers with strangers. If you read it in your Bible this morning, pray it with your counseling session this afternoon. The more the Word proclaimed on Sunday impacts the preacher’s own life, the more the hearers will begin to see the preached Word as a powerful force that changes their faith and life, too.

Those responding to the sermon on the blog are simply striving to live out what was preached in the context of their families, their struggles, their hopes and fears. The preacher is part of the community that hears the Word proclaimed and lives out that Word in concrete ways during the week.


7. There is no substitute for CONTENT.

In real estate, the adage is Location, Location, Location. For your online presence, the adage is Content, Content, Content.

With the sophistication of search engines perpetually on the rise, what shows up in your Google search or Facebook feed is increasingly tailored to you based on your history and the perceived quality of the content being shared.

If nobody reads or shares your stuff, no one will read or share your stuff. And if you don’t have stuff for people to read and share, no one will read or share your stuff.

Content, Content, Content. Both quality and quantity. Again and again and again.

Regular, quality content is one reason the Worship in My Week blogs are so good for our web page. Whatever else is going on that week, we’re pretty sure there’s going to be worship. And we will have probably spent a good amount of time producing that content.

Sermon response blogs are a great way to capture content you are spending energy producing already.


Get Started Today

  • Ask one person, one time.
    Don’t invite someone to write a sermon response every week until Jesus comes back; ask them to try it once. And see what happens.

  • Make the expectation clear.
    Their task is to find something from worship to take into their week. It’s OK if it isn’t the sermon. (!) But it should be an honest engagement with the Word. Check out this video as a paradigm: Dartboard Vs. Catcher’s Mitt

  • Grant access to offset challenge.
    High challenge needs high invitation to avoid discouragement. If you are asking someone to put their faith walk on display for the congregation, you will want to make yourself available to them. You can’t proofread every blog every time, but taking time to work through multiple drafts or talk through ideas those first couple of blogs will help a new writer feel confident and encouraged.

Shaped for a Purpose

Hands working on pottery wheel ,  retro style tonedRoxanne is one of our writers who is willing to go out on a limb, but would like to know you are there in the tree with her.

Especially at the beginning, investing personal time with Roxanne meant she felt encouraged and up to the challenge. And the honest and powerful things she writes enhances the hearing of the Word in the lives of our people on a regular basis.


Phase Two: Build a Team

  • Make a rotation
    First Sunday of the Month, Second Sunday, Fifth Sunday, Call Me If You Need Me, I’ll Let You Know If Something Hits Me–it takes all kinds…
  • Provide direction and support
    Most writers will have multiple questions over time. Ongoing development is a key component. We train our writers but then also keep in touch with them over time.
  • Be open to one shot wonders
    Keep your ears open for faith stories from people who aren’t on your regular team. You might have to write the story for them or send one of your staff to interview them, but capture their story of God’s Word at work in their lives.We had over 200 different people who contributed at least once last year on our blog,  from college professors to confirmation youth. The diversity helps the community experience a vibrant Word at work in their lives.
  • Allow for a two-way street
    Comments on the blog or on Facebook help the dialogue continue. Citing a blog in the sermon elevates the roll of your discipleship presence online.


Here are a few more tools for supporting a discipling presence online:

Discipleship Online

digital bible study

This blog talks about our online presence in terms of our congregational discipleship strategy.

It’s a great place to send new writers to catch a vision for what we are trying to do online.



Writers Page

pencilsThis static content lets our writers know what to expect from us, and what we expect from them. A couple of times a year we get together to talk about how the process is working, answer any questions, and talk about topics we will need content for in the future.



The tag we use for this kind of blog is Worship in My Week. Check out more here: http://stlukeaa.org/tag/worship-in-my-week/













Hope for the Future and a Bright Red Nose

By Justin Rossow

Of course the hood on his sweatshirt is up: the young African American man in the Walgreens line in front of me looks like he is doing his best to fit a stereotype. Late teens, early twenties; jeans below the hip; six inches of stylish boxers showing above a wide, leather belt; gold-capped tooth; impatiently playing with a dollar bill and a handful of loose change;  hood pulled up.

Everything about him makes my brain say, “Thug. Punk. Vandal. Thief. Danger.”

I hate that about my brain.

Maybe that’s why, when the white man in front of us finally gets his question answered and wanders back toward aisle three, I ask if I can add the thug’s only item, a 16 oz. Coke, to my bill.

Or maybe he seems like he’s in a hurry and I am, too, and checking out one customer is twice as fast as checking out two.

Or maybe it’s the Spirit of Jesus.

Or maybe all of the above.

“Can I buy your Coke?” I ask as he approaches the cashier.

“Sure!” He smiles from behind the hood, showing off the gold.

But he doesn’t take the large drink and go the way I expect. He shuffles around a little bit and pulls something out of his pocket. I change my mind: he’s closer to 17 than 21.

The young man smiles almost timidly at the cashier and at me and shakes his head: “I just bought this,” he says. He shows us both the small red clown nose; a charity fundraiser.

He’s amused at the thought, “It was the same price as the Coke. I just bought this for charity. And then you buy my Coke.” He smiles and shakes his head again. “Pay it forward.”

He takes the bright red Coke can and slips it into the front pocket of his sweatshirt with the bright red clown nose.

But he doesn’t leave. He hovers at the head of the line as I produce my wallet and credit card, the cashier rings me out, I swipe and sign, the receipt gets printed, torn, and stuffed into the nearest bag.

It’s almost awkward. What’s he waiting for? Thug. Punk. Vandal. Thief. Danger. With a bright red clown nose for charity?

He moves to walk out with me, but we stop just in front of the bright red automatic Walgreens doors. He steps in front of me and, turning, looks me in the eye for the first time.

He offers me his hand, which I shake. His palm is smooth and cool; his fingers are long and thin; his grip is firm, but almost tender.

I was wrong. He can’t be any older than 17. Maybe even 16. He’s probably in high school. My daughter starts high school in the fall.

“Thank you,” he says simply. We shake on a Coke and a promise of hope for the future and a world in which you give and receive generously and freely.

And then my friend turns and disappears out the automatic doors.

I’m standing in a Walgreens 7.7 miles from Ferguson, MO, holding a bag of decongestant. And the world is changed.

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