Pastorally Speaking: Bobby Herrington on “Christian Community Created by the Gospel”

[Editor’s Note: This post continues the “Pastorally Speaking” series: posts written by pastors for pastors. Bobby Herrington is the Executive Pastor at Mercy Hill Church, a recent church plant in Greensboro, N.C., and Ph.D. student in theology at SEBTS.]

Three summers ago I had the opportunity to go backpacking across the snow covered peaks of British Columbia, Canada. One afternoon we approached the downhill slope of a massive glacier which was covered in snow. Walking down was dangerous because under the snow there could be deep unseen crevices that someone could fall into at any time. Therefore, when walking down the glacier we tied ourselves together with a rope, each person about 50 feet from the other. If the first person fell into a crevice each member of the team would roll onto their stomach and swing their ice axe into the glacier keeping the first person from falling very far. While going at it alone would have been extremely dangerous, hooking ourselves together made it rather safe.

This is a picture of how Christian community should work within the local church. As believers we should hook ourselves to one another through intentional discipleship relationships. We see this type of commitment both described and prescribed in Acts 2:42, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

The New Testament calls the local church to an impossible type of community; a community that breaks the barriers of race, socio-economics, and ethnicity. The Bible calls us to rejoice with our brothers and sisters when they rejoice, and suffer with them when they suffer. The Bible also calls us to share our material resources with one another.

Yet, because of sin, authentic Christian community seems more difficult than ever to establish. Churches split, marriages crumble, relationships sever, and church cook-outs and Wednesday night dinners don’t seem to be doing enough in creating the type of deep community the New Testament calls the local church to. In this post, I would like to both encourage and demonstrate that only the gospel can create the type of deep community within our churches that the New Testament commands.

No matter how hard we try as pastors, small group leaders, or Sunday school teachers, we cannot mechanically create community between members of our church. The reason for this is because our horizontal community with one another is grounded in our vertical community with God. The church is not a collection of people who share common interests but a people who have been called into fellowship with Jesus Christ and one another. As a result, division, disunity, and broken relationships within the church are not a community problem but a gospel problem.

Therefore, if we want to see authentic community in our churches, it will only come through the faithful preaching of the gospel. Only through the preaching of the gospel can people supernaturally begin a relationship with God that will enable them to have authentic relationships with one another within a local church.

So, while we ultimately cannot create community as pastors, what are some things we can do as pastors to help spur on and maintain this community that is only created by the gospel? Below are three things we are doing at the church where I serve (www.mercyhillgso.com) to spur our members on to biblical community.

1) Emphasize the importance of gathering – Hebrews 10:25 says, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing.” Nothing can replace the importance of the weekly gathering for developing community within the church; the gospel is preached through sermon, pictured through the sacraments, and celebrated through fellowship.

Many people today want deep organic relationships but are not willing to put the time in to allow those relationships to develop. In the era of chat rooms and Facebook many people have communication, but few have biblical community. I use to often tell my small group that only structured friendships lead to organic relationships. It is only through hours of intentional time spent together with other Christians that these relationships move beyond surface level to the point that discipleship happens on a weekly basis.

2) Discipleship happens in community – This is a plumb-line at Mercy Hill Church (which we “borrowed” from our sending church, the Summit Church). The fact is many of us, pastors included, believe that the church needs us more than we need the church. The church is always asking us to volunteer, give money, use our gifts, etc. And while yes we should do all of those things, we cannot forget, and should not let our people forget, that every Christian needs the church to become a growing disciple of Jesus Christ.

Too many in our churches are attempting to be lone ranger Christians where the church is seen as good but not necessary. As Jesus had a small group of men he invested in, each of us needs a small group of people that speak the gospel into all areas of our lives on a weekly basis.

3) Call church members to a covenant commitment – One way to practically implement the previous points is to make joining a small group of 10-15 people part of a church covenant that all members of the church agree to. Make it a clear expectation that part of joining the church is a commitment to others in the church. It is my belief that only this type of intentional community will lead to the commitment to one another we see in Acts.

In just the books of Acts and 1 Corinthians Paul outlines at least 30 “one another” commitments that members of the body of Christ are to have to one another. This type of deep commitment to one another can never happen unless the members of our church are deeply involved in one another’s lives, and open about areas they need to grow. As pastors we must call our people to this type of commitment and live it out ourselves.

 

For the Record (Michael Travers): Why Should Christians Read Literature?

[Editor’s Note: Michael Travers is Professor of English and Associate Vice President of Institutional Effectiveness at Southeastern. He is author of Encountering God in the Psalms (Kregel, 2003) and co-author (with Richard D. Patterson) of Face to Face With God: Human Images of God in the Bible (Biblical Studies Press, 2008). As a disciple of Christ and good literature, and teacher on both at Southeastern, we asked him to write on the topic of reading literature for Christian formation.]

Why should Christians bother reading literature at all? Because reading literature humanizes us—in the best sense of the word. Literature helps us realize the image of God in us in ways that we cannot afford to miss. Consider….

Literature exercises and develops our emotions and imaginations. People write about what they experience and how they respond emotionally and imaginatively to their experiences. As we read good imaginative literature, we begin to see our own experiences and emotions in the larger human context. Which emotions are healthy, which not? Which emotions ought we to cultivate, which should we put to death? In literature, we can see the expressions and consequences of human emotions in real-life situations and can be encouraged or take warning accordingly. It is the same with our imaginations. Reading literature gives us what Kevin Vanhoozer calls “the power of synoptic vision”: through our imaginations responding to the imaginative writings of others, we see the important issues in life, not just the urgent and immediate circumstances around us. Imagination allows us to see the universal and timeless human issues and truths in the particular experiences of the characters in the book we are reading.

Literature speaks to the human condition in which we all find ourselves all the time. As humans, we all share the same human condition. No matter our gender, race, or nationality, we all struggle with sin, experience the emotions of love and hate, give expression to our strongest desires, and we all long for something that this world cannot satisfy—in the end, God. Literature connects us with others who have given effective expression to our common humanity and longings and, while we may not agree with a writer’s worldview, he or she illuminates our common condition in ways that can help us understand our situation better and relate to others outside of our immediate community. In Windows to the World: Literature in Christian Perspective, Leland Ryken helpfully suggests that literature “clarifies the human situation to which the Christian faith speaks.”[1] Likewise, with C. S. Lewis, a Christian can think of literature as one form of “pre-evangelism”: a means to help people ask the important questions—the eternal questions—and which gives us an opportunity to speak the gospel into their lives.

Literature expands us. Reading imaginative literature takes us outside of our own immediate situation. We get to meet other people from other places—even from other times—that we would otherwise never meet. When we read a novel, we don’t just follow a plot line; we become acquainted with more people—some friends, some not so much friends—who hone our humanity. We get to look in on other cultures—oriental as well as occidental, contemporary as well as ancient—and in its turn that experience helps us not to be blinded to the realities of our own culture and time. Again, C. S. Lewis is helpful here. What he says in An Experiment in Criticism is worth quoting at some length: “We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own….”[2] He continues, “in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here [i.e. in reading great literature], as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”[3] Think a bit about that!

Literature can help us glorify God in our lives. Humans are “wordish creatures.”[4] Only we, of all God’s creatures, use sounds and graphics symbolically to communicate what is not immediately present to our five senses. Only we imagine and create what is not essential to our immediate needs. Only we can appreciate beauty, truth and goodness in their own rights. God made us wordish creatures, and he communicated the gospel to us in words. Even Jesus Christ is given the epithet, “Word made flesh,” and only He communicates the Father to us sinful people. Because literature is a wordish medium, it is in some senses the form of artistic expression that allows us to get closest to our Creator. After all, we are all part of that great Story, and our stories fit into the larger Story. And you can’t tell a story without words.

Why read literature? How can you not? It’s part of our heritage as humans. But we must cultivate it if we are not to lose it again and revert to an earlier age or place where the Word and the word were both darkened. Make your words flesh that the Word made flesh might be glorified.



[1] Leland Ryken, Windows to the World: Literature in Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), 34.

[2] C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 137.

[3] Ibid., 141.

[4] Bradley Green, The Gospel and the Mind: Recovering and Shaping the Intellectual Life (Crossway, 2010), 104.

Pastorally Speaking: Andrew Hopper on “Team Sermon Planning: A Sure Bet in Teaching Men to Preach”

[Editor’s Note: This post continues the “Pastorally Speaking” series: posts written by pastors for pastors. Andrew Hopper is Lead Pastor of Mercy Hill Church, a new church plant in Greensboro, N.C. He writes on the topic of training others to preach by team-planning for weekly sermons.]

I am convinced that we often do things well only after having seen them done well. That is certainly what I am finding to be true when it come to teaching men to preach. Discipleship in preaching can happen in countless ways. Different plans and methods abound and I am sure they all have merit. I will spend my time here presenting a simple paradigm that had monumental influence on me. It is also one which I plan to replicate through our church plant (www.MercyHillGSO.com).

The basic concept is a team approach to weekly sermon planning. Under this model a lead pastor designates a certain portion of time each week to present his sermon to a trusted and handpicked team before it is preached for the congregation. During this time the teaching team will have ample opportunities to give their honest opinions, insights, critiques and additions. The team approach to sermon building has two major wins. First, the sermon will be better than it would have been otherwise. Typically, if not universally, more qualified eyes on any given sermon will make that sermon better. More eyes means more commentaries read, more experiences shared to draw upon for illustrations, and more opportunities to see if something has been missed. Second, the team approach gives the lead pastor an unparalleled weekly opportunity to teach selected members of his staff, elder team, and future leadership the mechanics, style, structure, and substance of preaching well.

Looking back, it is amazing how long I had been preaching before anyone actually took the time to invite me in and teach me to preach. I can only surmise that some natural ability in oration and humor masked my ignorance and gave the illusion that knew what I was doing! But when I landed at the Summit Church (www.SummitRDU.com) in 2007 I found myself in a culture of healthy critique and instruction. Eventually as a campus pastor I was invited into Pastor JD Greear’s sermon planning meetings on a weekly basis. The impact they had on my life and preaching cannot be overestimated. After months of listening and watching, the proper categories for sermon building slowly started to form in my mind. And after years of watching and listening my confidence to build a strong, substantive, and Gospel centered sermon grew all the more.

So what does it actually look like? What does it take to do team sermon planning effectively thereby discipling men to preach effectively? I am sure it can work many different ways but I will finish up this post with a few guiding thoughts.

1)     The actual sermon planning meeting needs to be a major priority. We, like the Summit Church, place a major emphasis on this meeting as it is one of the most important that go on all week. What could be more important than making our sermons better and teaching younger men to make their sermons better? For us, attendance is an expectation not an option.

2)     Look for opportunities to build confidence in your guys by using their material. I cannot tell you the confidence boost it was for me every single time Pastor JD would use something in his sermon that I brought up in the meeting. I would almost say bend over backwards to use ideas from your team! Often you will be in a situation where your example or illustration is even slightly better than the one they brought up. It doesn’t matter, use theirs if you can.

3)     Choose the team wisely. Obviously when thinking about building your team there needs to be a base level of ability that everyone brings to the table. After all, you want the sermon to be better after the meeting than it was before. But really take the time to consider who ought to be in the room for the purpose of training and development. I think it best to bring in guys who you know have raw talent and great desire, but need the sculpting that only comes with time.

4)     Take strategic opportunities to pause and teach. I think on the whole, more is caught by team sermon planning than actually taught. I mean that most guys will learn by hearing the repetition of thought rather than having a specific point harped on. However, that is not to say there is no value in taking some time to specifically point things out along the way. Routine teaching points will include things like finding resources, systematically gathering sermon material, basic sermon structures, preaching Jesus not only as example and motivation but also as savior, preaching the Gospel for sanctification as well as salvation, etc.

5)     Bring a mostly finished sermon, not just a thought you have. Part of the discipline in team planning is thinking about the sermon early and often during the week. In a stressful and fast paced environment this can be daunting. But committing to bring a mostly finished sermon into the meeting is more profitable in teaching your team and improving the sermon. In bringing an actual sermon your team will have the benefit of seeing your entire thought progression and the movements between different sermon elements.