Cultivating a Preaching Ministry in an Age of Covid (and Beyond): Think Compass, Not Canoe.

To build a preaching ministry that reaches people in today’s communication environment, integrate your sermons into the discipleship life of your congregation. (Think Compass, not Canoe.)

by Justin Rossow

How do you effectively shape the faith and life of people who are less regular in worship and more diverse in their communication preferences than ever before? The urgency of that question has been building over the last decade, and Covid has certainly dialed up the heat. There are no silver bullet answers, but beginning to wrestle with the shape and character of your preaching ministry during Covid will bear fruit in years to come.

In the first installment of this blog series, we talked about expanding your one-shot Sunday sermon into multiple communication channels. When you imagine a weekly meal plan instead of a Sunday buffet, you increase the amount of content your hearers will be able to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.

In the second part of this exploration, we noticed that building a multi-sermon series over time is more effective if you think Tinker Toys, not Jenga. In other words, the more connections you can make between the content of the different weeks without making the later weeks depend too much on the earlier, the more effective your communication strategy will be as your hearers listen at different times and in different ways. Shaping a sermon series under a general theme could be more effective than creating a multi-week logical argument where each sermon assumes you heard (and still remember) what was said in the pulpit last week.

That idea of a central theme for a season—like Joy, or Forgiveness, or Prayer—combined with the idea of pushing your single sermon into a variety of content streams gets us to an important insight for your Covid and Post-Covid preaching ministry: the more you integrate your sermons into the discipleship life of your congregation, the more effective your preaching ministry will be. In order to engage a changing communications culture, think compass, not canoe.

Think Compass, Not Canoe.

I suspect that at most congregations we think more activity is better than less activity. We often judge a church by the number of things going on and the number of people involved. Conversely, less activity seems like a sign of diminishing health. In a time when all activities have been complicated by Covid concerns, it’s hard not to judge lower worship attendance, fewer group meeting, and less church activities as a kind of failure, or at least as decline. When you evaluate ministry based on activity level, less activity is really bad news.

That natural way of evaluating the health of a congregation based on activity level conceals the fact that not all activity moves you in the right direction, especially in a group. If you put one person in a one-person canoe, they can paddle as hard as they want and more activity will result in more progress in whatever direction they happen to be heading. But put six people in a six-person canoe and hand each of them a paddle, and the one thing they cannot do is paddle hard in any direction they want. The more people paddle in different directions, the less forward momentum the canoe will achieve.

I think that’s the status of a lot of congregations: everyone paddling but going nowhere. (I’m not pointing any fingers; we know who we are.) Without further reflection, we evaluate church health based on engagement and activity, so we hand everyone a paddle and tell them to get going! Since the congregation doesn’t seem to be making much headway, we double down on activity, telling those who are already rowing to row harder, and making sure every family member has a paddle. But as long as we are all rowing in our own individual directions, we end up with a lot of wet and tired canoers but not a lot of movement. It turns out, just two people rowing in the same direction will get a lot farther than six people paddling in six different directions. (See the following blog for more.)

If your sermon or your preaching ministry is just one paddle (a really big one, but just one), and you are paddling the canoe of your congregation as hard as you can in the direction you think Jesus is leading you, you will make some progress. Probably. Maybe. As long as at least some other paddles are rowing in the same direction. But you’ll spend a lot of time wet and a lot of time tired. What’s the alternative?

You could exchange your really big paddle for a megaphone and try and be more of a coxswain—the crew member who shouts out the rhythm of the strokes in competitive rowing. But I kind of like the idea of using your pastoral leadership in general and your sermons in particular as a kind of compass. Engagement and activity matter, but only if you’re all pulling in the same direction.

A compass lets you know where you are and where you are headed. A compass is constant enough to keep the ordinal directions straight, but a compass can also accommodate any obstacle or detour. Best of all, a compass mentality can keep engagement high while keeping everyone moving in the same general direction. And a compass combines group direction (an overarching theme) with individual participation (multiple communication channels).

Using Your Compass

Finding an overarching theme for a season that resonates with your congregation serves to help keep everybody moving in the same direction. Because the theme is high-level and fairly flexible, every ministry area and every individual can begin to imagine how their faith walk is moving toward that shared goal. You don’t have to have everyone walking in lock step or even at the same pace if you know you are heading in the right direction.

Instead of Facebook, YouTube, small group Bible studies, or worship handouts diluting your primary message, every paddle put in the water can be pointed in the same direction. Two people with paddles headed in the same direction is way better than six people paddling in different directions. But six people paddling in the same direction is best of all! Engage as many people as you can with as many communications channels and ministry areas as you can; and use the overarching theme as a compass to keep everyone moving in the same direction.

Your sermon becomes one key experience of consulting the compass and adjusting direction. But propelling the congregation forward is the work of the whole congregation. As long as you are all heading in the same direction, you will have less tired, disillusioned, and sopping wet staff and lay leaders and more people following Jesus and actually enjoying it!

To help you imagine the difference I see between congregations who disciple through busyness and congregations that think compass over canoe, here are a couple of fictional examples. The first is an imaginary month and a half in the life of an imaginary family at a “canoe” congregation I just made up. The second is the same scenario but from a “compass” perspective.

Example One: Every Canoe Paddles On Their Own

St. Example Lutheran Church is running a six week series on the book of Philippians. Our family, the Typicals, saw two of these sermons online and attended one service in person. Mrs. Typical has a strong relationship with the women in her working moms small group, and attended 5 of the 6 Zoom meetings on the book of Esther.

The congregation cares about families, and each of the Typical kids got an email with an age appropriate message. The first was based on the elementary Sunday School curriculum Heroes of the Faith while the other was taken from Youth Ministry’s Parables for Teens. That means Mrs. Typical got 12 different emails; she only shared 2 with each of the kids, for 4 total (and she feels kind of guilty about it).

The Assistant Pastor leads a Wednesday Bible class at St. Example that the Typicals used to attend as a family. Mr. Typical thinks it’s great to have the option of watching on Facebook live, and twice when they missed worship on Sunday, they watched the 20 minute study on Wednesday evening. Right now that midweek series is on the Fruits of the Spirit. The Typicals heard about two of the fruits…

Mr. Typical has also been going to a men’s Saturday Morning breakfast study where they have been going verse by verse through the book of Romans. For the last five years.

Ask any of the Typical family members what they have been learning about Jesus lately, and each of them would be hard-pressed to say anything in particular. Every paddle in their congregation is in the water. They could be paddling harder, but they lose focus because there are so many options, and they only ever get part of whatever is being offered.

I don’t mean that to sound harsh or critical; just, well, Typical. Do you recognize this experience? What would happen if the congregation chose a common theme and aligned their ministries and communication channels to head in that single direction? What might that look like?

Example Two: A Compass Sets The Direction

St. Example Lutheran Church is running a six week series on the book of Philippians. Pastors, staff, and lay leaders prayerfully considered the next step St. Example was being led to take, and the theme of “Joy” had some real resonance. So the sermon series on Philippians is focused on the Joy of Following Jesus. Our family, the Typicals, saw two of these sermons online and attended one service in person. The PDF handouts they printed at home matched the sheet they got in person and each handout clearly linked the day’s sermon to the theme of Joy.  

Mrs. Typical has a strong relationship with the women in her working moms small group, and attended 5 of the 6 Zoom meetings. With help from a lay leader in Adult Education, their study on the book of Esther focused on Joy in your vocation. Each of their meetings began with a prayer for deeper joy in following Jesus, the same prayer used in worship that week.

The congregation cares about families, and the Typical family got one email each week that talked about Joy. The email included age appropriate questions that reflected how joy showed up in the Heroes of the Faith and Parables for Teens studies from Sunday. The email also included the Prayer for Joy that was used on worship that week. Because the whole family was asked to talk about Joy, it didn’t matter as much that they had studied different parts of the Bible; and when they missed a week or two, they were still able to connect to the material since it went with what they had been talking about the week before. That is, when they took time to do it. But they did do it. Sometimes…

The Assistant Pastor leads a Wednesday Bible class at St. Example and since Wednesdays are dedicated to taking the theme of Sunday and going a little deeper, when the Typicals missed worship on Sunday, they watched the 20 minute study on Wednesday evening on Facebook Live and felt like they were all caught up on Joy.

Mr. Typical has also been going to a men’s Saturday Morning breakfast study. They were kind of stuck in Romans, so they were encouraged by the pastor to read along with Philippians. Now they are going verse by verse through Philippians, using the discussion questions from the worship handouts, the PDFs on St. Example’s webpage, or the St. Example Facebook Group (which posts the Joy discussion questions every Sunday afternoon). They also close by praying (you guessed it) the Prayer for Joy that was used in worship the previous week.

Ask any of the Typical family members what they have been learning about Jesus lately, and each of them would say JOY! Press a little further and you might get some mumbling and dissembling, but each one of those members is aware of the fact that Joy is the overarching theme at St. Example right now. They hear it wherever they encounter St. Example discipleship at work. They see it in every communication channel used by St. Example. They don’t get all of any of the programs or ministry opportunities offered by the congregation, but because all of the ministries align under a common theme, each experience reinforces the others.

Instead of an endless sea of opportunities, the Typical Family gets a focused time that actually helps them grow in a specific direction. After 6-12 weeks of Joy, the Typicals will notice when St. Example moves into a season focused on Authentic Relationships. Because they have experienced a common thread over time, they will begin to look for a common thread wherever they see St. Example at work. As their participation increases, the theme is magnified rather than diluted. And the more they all paddle, the father they all get together, headed in the same direction.

There is no simple answer for how to shape your preaching ministry in an age of Covid or in a communication culture where everyone constantly bounces from one communication stream to the next. But if you imagine a weekly meal plan instead of a Sunday buffet when you plan your sermon, if you think Tinker Toys over Jenga when you plan your sermon series, and if you preference a compass approach to a canoe mentality in your preaching ministry, I think you will increase the likelihood that the Typical Family at your congregation will experience real growth in their relationship with Jesus.

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