The Vital Worship, Healthy Congregations book series is published by the Alban Institute in cooperation with the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Series editor John Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute, writes that the series “is designed to reflect the kind of vibrant, creative energy and patient reflection that will promote worship that is both relevant and profound. It is designed to invite congregations to rediscover a common vision for worship, to sense how worship is related to all aspects of congregational life, and to imagine better ways of preparing both better ‘content’ and better ‘process’ related to the worship life of their own congregations.”
As part of its work, the Calvin Institute is preparing a collection of stories on the core values of vital worship. The latest, on “Hearing God’s Voice through Change: The Preacher’s Role,” is summarized here.
Hearing God’s Voice through Change: The Preacher’s Role
At one point or another, changes force themselves on the life of every church, threatening the status quo but also offering opportunities for growth. The way a pastor approaches such changes in his or her sermons is vital to the congregation’s response.
Listen—God is calling
Change, says Craig A. Satterlee, author of When God Speaks through Change: Preaching in Times of Congregational Transition (Alban Institute 2005), is going to happen. Neighborhood populations will shift, factories will close, pastors will retire-it can’t be stopped.
What churches can do, and should do, is react to these changes in a way that acknowledges that rather than being a threat to the church’s “normal” way of being, a change may be God’s way of calling the church to something new.
It’s unlikely that an entire congregation will react to change the same way. One voice needs to be heard above all: the gospel. That’s where preaching comes in.
“During a congregational transition, faithful preaching ensures that the gospel—and not a program or agenda—is proclaimed and heard,” Satterlee writes. A professor of homiletics at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and a former pastor, Satterlee describes five foundational commitments necessary for shepherding congregations through important transitions from the pulpit:
- Understand change. Change can be viewed either as threat or opportunity, but healthy churches and their pastors will see an opportunity.
- Trust in the power, purpose, and place of preaching in transition. Pastors must recognize that their sermons will make a difference as their congregations work through transitions.
- Welcome the transition into sermon making. Pastors should put forth their best effort to compose sermons that proclaim God’s grace amid change.
- Practice holy and active listening. To preach messages that will truly help their congregations through transition, pastors must listen to their congregations, to the gospel, and to the Holy Spirit, not just to their own feelings.
- Stay anchored in God’s presence, grace, and power. Transitions are bound to be stressful. To lead congregations through them with grace, pastors must be grounded in the support of God and of faithful friends.
Give space and take time
Every transition consists of three main periods, says Satterlee: First, there is an ending. Perhaps a pastor retires or a congregation grows and leaves behind its identity as a small family church. Second, there is a neutral zone, or as Satterlee calls it, a “liminal strand” (from Latin limen, for threshhold). The congregation processes what has happened and discovers God’s will for the next step. Finally, there is a new beginning.
Each step takes time. One Sunday, or one sermon, cannot sort out a congregation’s reaction to a problem or a change that cuts to the heart of its identity. But going too far the other way can be bad, too. Congregational change needs to be addressed more than once in worship and from the pulpit, but congregations also need room to breathe and be refreshed.
Name the problem
To react to changes in a healthy way, congregations need to hear about those changes. People need to openly name their grief and hurt.
Keep it Bible-based
The fruits of naming problems from the pulpit can turn sour if a pastor also names too explicitly his or her favorite answer, looking to “proof texts” instead of Scripture’s overall message and denying the validity of worshipers’ opinions. Starting with Scripture and sticking to it keeps this from happening.
To read “Hearing God’s Voice through Change: The Preacher’s Role” in its entirety, click here.
To read other stories from the Calvin Institute’s collection, click here.
To learn about the Calvin Symposium on Worship, to be held January 26-28, 2006, click here.
Books in the Vital Worship, Healthy Congregations Series
When God Speaks through Change: Preaching in Times of Congregational Transition by Craig A. Satterlee
Homiletics professor and parish pastor Craig Satterlee reflects in this accessible, provocative volume on how to integrate significant events in a congregation’s life into the preaching ministry of the church. Rather than offering a blueprint for preaching, he gently guides pastors, seminarians, and other congregational leaders who want to make sure the gospel, not an agenda, is preached.
Designing Worship Together: Models and Strategies for Worship Planning by Norma deWaal Malefyt and Howard Vanderwell
While many books are available about the theology of worship, worship styles, and issues of music, there are few resources on the value of careful worship planning. This book draws on more than two decades of collaboration between pastor Howard Vanderwell and musician Norma deWaal Malefyt, offering thoughtful, field-tested processes and tools for planning, implementing, and evaluating life- enriching weekly worship.
One Bread, One Body: Exploring Cultural Diversity in Worship by C. Michael Hawn
Michael Hawn seeks to help bridge the gap between the human tendency to prefer ethnic and cultural homogeneity in worship and the church’s mandate to offer a more diverse and inclusive experience. He offers a concise and practical theological framework as well as numerous strategies and an extensive bibliography for implementing “culturally conscious worship.”