Preaching from the lectionary

This article is from pastor Sam Butler.

Sam and Denise Butler
Sam and Denise Butler

Several months ago I was challenged to consider using the lectionary to shape my preaching-teaching and worship planning. I say “challenged” because I was accustomed to “doing my own thing” in planning my sermons, and the idea of using someone else’s pre-determined structure did not sit well with me at first. Despite my initial resistance, I decided to give the lectionary approach a try. I began by studying the meanings of the seasons of the historic, orthodox Christian worship calendar as outlined in the lectionary, and then looking at the Scriptures that the lectionary assigns to each week throughout the year.

I was pleasantly surprised and decided to give it a trial run beginning with the season of Advent. I have now used the lectionary to structure worship in both a traditional church (with a sermon) and a fellowship group (with informal discussion). In both cases, the feedback has been positive, as has been my personal experience.

Note: the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) is recommended (though not required) for use in all GCI congregations. It can be accessed online at http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/. An excellent resource to assist in its use is found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/.

In both traditional congregation and fellowship group settings I’ve experienced the clear advantages of following the lectionary. The RCL typically provides four scripture passages each week: two from the Old Testament (including one from the Psalms); one from the New Testament Epistles; and one from the New Testament Gospels. In all cases, the focus is on Christ with Old Testament texts prophetically pointing to him; texts from the Epistles focusing the church on his ongoing ministry through the Spirit; and texts from the Gospels sharing accounts of Jesus’ earthly life: birth through death, resurrection and ascension.

RCL

The RCL carefully selects Scripture passages to correlate with the progression of the Christian worship calendar, which begins its annual cycle in November with the season of Advent. Following this progression is good because it causes us to rehearse the full message of the gospel annually, and over the course of three years cover most of the texts of the Bible, which helps congregations receive a varied biblical diet.

Another benefit of following the lectionary is that doing so simplifies sermon preparation, and it gives others (like the worship team) a sense of where the pattern of services is headed, well in advance. This helps reduce the stress level for everyone. Note also that using the lectionary in a fellowship group helps relieve the burden of selecting discussion topics each week. Members can be given the lectionary passages ahead of time so they come prepared for the discussion. The facilitator can then have someone read the passages, then ask good questions to get the discussion going (and keep it going in a productive direction).

Here’s one more benefit in using the lectionary: it makes it possible to share the preaching/teaching load with others. I’ve been doing that, and in just a short time several people who would not have wanted to give a sermon have stepped up and, using the lectionary to guide their preparation, have done a good job (and they tell me they’ve enjoyed it!).

FaithTalk equipper: resources for fellowship groups

This article is from regional pastor Randy Bloom.

Randy and Debbie Bloom
Randy and Debbie Bloom

In GCI we have a vision for all kinds of churches for all kinds of people in all kinds of places. Some of our smaller congregations have realized that they are most effectively positioned to contribute to the realization of this vision by utilizing a fellowship group structure where people worship and fellowship in an informal environment that is attractive to new people who do not wish to be part of a more traditional, large church.

Fellowship groups are an ideal setting sharing the word of God through interactive Bible discussions rather than traditional sermons. Sermons typically are most effective in larger groups when there is a need to convey information within a time-limited, more formal context. Sermons are generally delivered to people without a means of interaction through discussion.

The interactive aspect of the discussion format is both powerful and fruitful. By engaging the whole group in dialog, it stimulates intellectual development, critical thinking and the sharing of ideas. Discussion helps people get to know themselves and each other better, thus promoting relationship as people are helped to grow closer together.

Guided by the Holy Spirit, Bible-based discussions facilitate life transformation (spiritual formation), which is the goal of Christian discipleship. As people interact together, discussing the Scriptures, the Spirit “bears witness with their spirit” to understand what the Father is saying to them, which then enhances the relevance of the Bible to their daily lives. The Spirit uses interactive discussions to draw people closer to Jesus, collectively and individually.

Some who see the vitality that fellowship groups provide may be unsure about how to facilitate effective Bible-based group discussions. Here’s where the CAD team can be of assistance. We have developed an online resource that provides training and other resources to help you develop effective discussion formats. This resource is FaithTalk equipper—found online at http://faithtalkgroups.blogspot.com/.

FaithTalk equipper provides training videos and written guides showing how to go about setting up safe and caring places where people (churched and unchurched) can freely discuss faith and life as revealed in Scripture. On FaithTalk equipper you will find a number of tabs. Each one will take you to a video with a written guide, or an additional resource related to various aspects of establishing and conducting fellowship group or other small group discussions. The tabs most relevant for GCI fellowship groups include:

  • Tab 5: Guidelines for organizing and preparing meetings (including optional agendas)
  • Tab 6: How fellowship groups can be effective for “relational evangelism”
  • Tab 7: How to develop listening skills
  • Tab 8: How to ask good questions (essential for effective discussion)
  • Tab 9: Connection outside the meeting

There also is a tab that provides links to discussion guides that can be easily adapted to GCI doctrine, and a tab that provides links to books related to small groups. For those seeking to adopt a fellowship group format, remember that there is no set format—feel free to respond to the needs of your members as well as the cultural context of your surrounding community (focus group). If you have questions or would like assistance, feel free to contact your regional pastor. We’re here to help you.

Sermon summary: Jesus in the Dark

Here is the summary of a sermon for Palm Sunday written by pastor Lance McKinnon (Revised Common Lectionary, year B)

Lance and Georgia McKinnon
Lance and Georgia McKinnon

Mark 15:33-37 (NRSV)

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.

It’s been said that you can know one’s true character by what they do in the dark. But for us as believers, our true character and identity is found in Jesus—in who he is and what he has done in our darkness. Our theme scripture for this Palm Sunday is the passion narrative in Mark chapters 14 through 15. Today, we’ll focus on Mark 15:33-37 as the center point for understanding the entire story. It gets rolling in Mark 14:17 with Jesus gathered in the upper room, sharing the Passover with his disciples, while giving them the elements of broken bread and poured-out wine as a new orientation toward a new covenant, which Jesus is about to inaugurate. This meal would have been eaten at about sundown. The story thus begins at night, and gets darker until it is pitch-black within the tomb.

It’s important to note that Jesus is in control of the events in this story from start to finish. The darkness didn’t creep up on him, catching Jesus off guard and landing him on a cross. He was fulfilling his mission to take on our darkness for the purpose of overcoming it as the “light of the world.” Jesus courageously allows himself to be taken at night by a bandit while being deserted by his fearful disciples. Even his conviction by the religious rulers in their illegal trial is brought about by Jesus’ own words of truth rather than the accuser’s words of false accusation. This is not to say that Jesus necessarily anticipates or orchestrates all these events, but he continues to trust and live in the Spirit even when doing so takes him down a dark path. Jesus did not “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” in fear—he knew that his Father was with him. He never believes for a moment that he is not connected to the Father.

We see this belief hold firm on the cross as “darkness came over the whole land.” Jesus identifies with our darkness by crying out the first line from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” With this cry the entire Psalm is brought to mind, where we are told that God does not forsake or turn his face away or cease to listen to “the afflicted one.” Jesus is holding to the truth of his identity as connected to his Father, even as that connection is hidden in the darkness of sin, just as the sun was hidden in darkness “until three in the afternoon.”

Before the cross, Jesus told his disciples “the hour has come; behold, the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners.” Betrayal by definition means there is first connection and relationship. This helps us see sin as acting out of a belief that we do not belong to a loving Father. Jesus walks this dark road to the cross to bring us into the light of our relationship and connection to the Father. By taking on our sin he fully sees and experiences the darkness we live in, but he never once believes it. On the cross he takes that darkness, destroys it and lays it to rest in the tomb.

What Jesus does in the passion story is what he has done for us, to us, and with us. We are included in the story—we are connected to Christ. When Jesus went to the cross he takes all humanity with him. We too have truly died. When Jesus was laid in a tomb on the Sabbath, we too perfectly kept Sabbath-rest. We are truly identified as the Father’s faithful children in Jesus Christ. The death penalty for sin has been paid. The darkness is encased in a tomb. Jesus has answered the problem of darkness. The Father has always been connected to us and He created us for relationship with him out of his great love for us. Any darkness that betrays that truth has been put to death. Hallelujah!

Renewal In Our Fellowship Groups

The February Equipper focuses on renewal in our smallest congregations (we call them fellowship groups). The five articles in this issue are linked below. Enjoy! – Ted Johnston, Equipper editor

From Greg: Operating from abundance, not scarcity

What is a fellowship group?FaithTalk

Faithtalk Equipper: resources for fellowship groups by Randy Bloom

Sermon summary: Jesus in the Dark by Lance McKinnon

Preaching from the lectionary by Sam Butler

From Greg: Operating from abundance, not scarcity

Dear Pastors and Ministry Leaders:

Greg and Susan Williams
Greg and Susan Williams

During our 2015 end-of-year CAD team meeting we broke into groups to list our strengths and challenges, and to identify objectives for 2016. Though good ideas emerged, I noticed the challenges getting the most attention in ways that almost were threatening to become the focus of our planning. I say “almost” because in one of those Holy Spirit “aha moments” we agreed we should focus on our strengths, not our challenges. That shift changed how our plan for this year took shape.

There’s an important principle here that I think applies to the planning you do within your congregation. I believe we all need to operate from a perspective of abundance rather than scarcity. Doing so is a key to renewal in all of our congregations. Let me explain.

Operating from scarcity means holding tightly to what we possess, fearing it may run out. The assumption is that there are insufficient resources. This mindset is especially prominent within very small congregations (we refer to them as fellowship groups) where it’s hard to envision a future when, “most of our members are old and we haven’t had a visitor in years.” Given that perspective, it seems prudent to hold tight to money, ideas, time, possessions, positions, etc. Though a scarcity mentality is common in our culture and deeply ingrained in our nature, it’s not the fruit of faith, as noted by Jesus in his parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21).

In contrast, operating from abundance means knowing there truly is enough to go around because, by faith, we live in communion with a generous God. This abundance mentality is exemplified in Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 (John 6:1-15). With an abundance mentality we are a generous people—sharing all we have been given: time, ideas, finances—all we possess—in order to help others and in doing so to participate in what God is doing to build up his kingdom. Operating from abundance means knowing it truly is “more blessed to give than to receive.” It means building up people and relationships—living out of the extravagant grace and loving communion to which our name (GCI) points.

As many of our smallest congregations transition to fellowship groups, my prayer is that they do so from a posture of abundance, seeing that God has placed them where he has, and given them the mission to which they are called. It is not just larger congregations that are called to renewal—God has brought all of GCI to the threshold of renewal and has renewal plans for each congregation, no matter their size. This issue of Equipper focuses on renewal within fellowship group-size congregations. In our 2016 regional conferences we’ll have workshops focused on helping fellowship groups be as effective as they can be. In the meantime, I encourage you to give prayerful thought to answering some questions that flow from Paul’s challenge in Romans 12:3-13 for us to use “sober judgment” in considering ways we can be truly generous in using the gifts that, by grace, a generous God has imparted to us:

  • What is our average worship attendance?
  • What is the generational and racial/ethnic makeup of our congregation?
  • Do we have a community (focus group) where we are known because we are actively serving?
  • Are we locked into (comfortable with) our weekly service format, or are we open to trying something new?
  • What is happening in our congregation between the Sunday worship services?
  • What would we perceive as a “loss” if things changed within our present group?
  • What do we see for our congregation over the next three years?
  • What resources do we have for more actively joining Jesus in his mission of drawing all humanity to himself?
  • Is the Spirit nudging us to consider new approaches? How are we responding?

What is a fellowship group?

Recently, Greg Williams emailed all GCI-USA primary pastoral leaders to notify them that CAD has published a new version of the Church Administration Manual, which defines three types of GCI-USA congregations: non-chartered fellowship groups, chartered fellowship groups, and chartered churches. The two fellowship group types apply to congregations averaging less than 15 people in worship service attendance. The manual describes how fellowship groups are structured and alternative ways for them to operate depending on their sense of mission/vision, available resources, needs and preferences.

For additional information about fellowship groups, click here to download the August 2015 issue of Equipper.