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:
Rick, 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.
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:
On 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.
So 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.
4. Avoid HEROIC ACTION.
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.
In 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.
Roxanne 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:
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.
This 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/