Preaching as community building

Two pastors share their ideas about interacting with their congregations through the sermon.

Michael W. Campbell, Ph.D. is pastor of the Montrose and Gunnison Seventh-day Adventist Churches in western Colorado.
Kermit Netteburg, PhD, pastors the Beltsville Seventh-day Adventist Church in Maryland, United States.

A majority of church leaders are increasingly focusing their worship service on building a sense of community as well as encountering God. Hence, members stand to greet one another—visitors too—during a welcome and announcements period; music teams use songs that encourage audience interaction with one another as well as active participation in movement and singing; and prayer times invite people to unite as a congregation in prayer or let members pray in small groups throughout the sanctuary.

Can sermons focus on the same sense of community building? Yes!

Preaching often consists of the pastor’s exegesis and study to understand a passage or topic, a search for illustrations and stories, and then a presentation to an audience. The exegesis and illustrations usually come from study sources, not from interaction with the membership.

An interactive sermon creates a climate of community—helping members connect with one another as well as with God. Interactive preaching not only parses the passage and teases out the topic, but also involves members in creating the content.

Preaching content that builds community

The most common preaching content that builds community includes stories that feature members. The stories are real and local. Audience members listen more closely because they know the person in the story. Pastor Michael preached on 1 John 2 about the apostle John’s message to those young and old. An 11-year-old asked to share with the church that week, and Michael let him share what it means to be a young person in an old-person-dominated congregation—and what this passage meant to him. Church members listened in rapt attention— and learned about another person in their church community.

Equally compelling is an interview during the sermon. Pastor Kermit asked a member to come forward one Sabbath and tell the story of how he lost a watch he treasured and how he searched for it. The story illustrated a sermon on Luke 15—and made the desire of the Savior to find us real.

But member participation in preaching content also can stretch to the message. During a series on the three angels’ messages, Kermit asked members to share with him, in 25 words or less, what each angel’s message meant. He started each sermon by quoting several members’ brief descriptions—which helped the audience to know each other better. Kermit then shared his own understanding of each message over the three-week series to highlight his insights into the angels’ messages.

Michael asked members to share their interpretation of the story of Zacchaeus—but in a far more immediate context. He had children come forward to act out the scripture passage, with an adult sitting near the front serving as the tree. The younger children found themselves immersed in the message. Michael also asked members to text message him while he was preaching to respond to the question: what would you do if Jesus came to your house today? Michael shared those text messages with the congregation at the end of his sermon. Every teenager listened to that message! In fact, one 13-yearold gave Michael a high-five on the way out of church, stating that he was going to make sure he came to church from now on. The teenager saw his text message as a part of the collective worship experience.

We have found that members have keen insights to Adventist doctrines, and people appreciate hearing what their fellow members have to say on the topic.

One last idea: ask members what they want to hear you preach about.

Kermit did a series at Easter called “Cross-eyed Christians,” stories of people who saw Jesus die on the cross. Kermit picked four of the five sermons in the series, but asked members to suggest who should be the fifth person in the series. (He also didn’t reveal who the person was until the sermon started, which helped to build a stronger sense of community participation as well. And now, thanks to the diverse set of suggestions, Kermit will preach “Cross-eyed Christians II” during another Easter season!)

Creating content that builds community

Stories and other content that build community don’t just happen but must be planned in advance. We have found that the following three techniques can do wonders to help find the community-building content.

Pastoral visitation has been a cornerstone of pastoral ministry for centuries, and the experiences uncover content that builds community in sermons. They can procure stories from the members to share during a sermon (after obtaining permission to share the stories in a public sermon) and seek insights to the passages on which you will preach.

Technology has opened new ways to create the content. Emails to members, Web-based newsletters, Facebook and MySpace accounts,1 and text messages appeal to a wide range of members and can bring stories and insights to pastors that can help create community through the sermon itself.

Kermit produces a Web-based weekly church newsletter that frequently asks members to contribute ideas and stories for sermons. Life@ Beltsville circulates each Thursday and produces many responses. The ease of replying to the email enhances the response rate. Michael creates a similar newsletter, not only sent out by email but forms the basis of a pastor’s blog on the church Web site.

Pastors can quickly disseminate information and solicit sermon topics using MySpace or Facebook. Pastors can also subscribe to RSS feeds2 from church members and read blog posts—sometimes even posts about a recent sermon or other church life. This creates interactive connectivity from which to draw stories from church members. Text messaging has been one of the more interesting ways of generating content. We both have used text messaging during a sermon. Kermit and his wife, Ronnalee, were giving a joint sermon on tips for a successful marriage—and they asked the audience to text message tips to Kermit’s phone. One message said, “I’m a teenager, and I don’t know much about marriage. But it’s so cool to text message during church!” Other messages had valuable content, and Kermit shared that content at the close of the message.

Michael used text messaging in a slightly different way. He read a passage, then posed the question of what it meant. Congregants texted their thoughts, and Michael shared them—along with his more studied discussion of the passage.3

Every interactive experience seeks to produce some kind of desired change in the listener. We both have found that a very traditional technique, a call or appeal, helps create community by showing that others have been touched by the message as well. Not everyone responds to a call to stand or come forward; sometimes the call should be to complete a commitment card, create Thank-you notes among church members, or sign a pledge that people plan to put on the mirror in their house. Ultimately, the call needs to tangibly affect their lives.

Benefits of content that builds community

We both have found that interactive preaching—using the thoughts, stories, ideas, and sometimes even exegesis of our members—creates a sense of community that enhances worship and ties members closer to one another as they grow in connection with God. The participation may be as slight as simply announcing the passage in advance of the sermon. Members will find a sense of ownership that strengthens their relationship to the church—and Christ.

A side benefit results as visitors feel the sense of warmth and welcome that comes from the participation of everyone in the creation—and sometimes the delivery—of the sermon. Preaching as community building becomes an important part of building a healthy, growing congregation.

1 Facebook and MySpace are social networking Web sites.

2 “RSS (Rich Site Summary) is a format for delivering regularly
changing web content. Many news-related sites, weblogs
and other online publishers syndicate their content as an
RSS Feed to whoever wants it.”

3 Pastors should realize, of course, that encouraging text
messaging during the worship service may be disturbing
to others who do not have the device or would prefer that
this use of technology be saved for occasions other than the
worship service.

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Michael W. Campbell, Ph.D. is pastor of the Montrose and Gunnison Seventh-day Adventist Churches in western Colorado.
Kermit Netteburg, PhD, pastors the Beltsville Seventh-day Adventist Church in Maryland, United States.

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