Let them ask…
I remember being really impressed a few years ago when I was listening to a couple of sermons online. Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, said that he was going to do a ten part sermon in which he answered the questions that his congregation texted in. The texts would be posted to a website and the congregation would vote on which questions they wanted to hear Mark address.
The series covered everything from humor to evolution to how we know the Bible is inspired. It was a cool way to hear the needs of the congregation and discuss them.
Too often preaching happens in a vacuum. Elders and ministers plan sermon series months ahead of time, often with little input from anyone else and sometimes without much thought about whether this is a message that the congregation is struggling with.
Paul, while he was rolling around the Med starting churches, was continually getting letters from his churches with questions about Jesus, God, Church, sex, meat, idols. Then he would write them back with answers. Most of the new testament is Paul’s letters to churches, answering their questions.
I think this is something that churches should do more often. But I know that it creates issues that ministers might be concerned about:
One, it takes away predictability. You might go from a question on evolution to a question about dating to how Christians should respond to environmental issues.
Two, it might expose your personal feelings about things. When you can’t plan how to tactfully speak around issues you might have to tell someone how you feel about this question at hand. This means the minister has to be transparent sometimes, and that is a scary thing.
Three, this might remove the illusion of where your congregation is. I think often we assume our congregations are at a certain place spiritually, but in actuality they may be somewhere else entirely. The quality of questions might reflect a different reality than we had assumed. This might expose that your congregation needs something a little more basic than an expository six-week series on First Timothy. Maybe they need to get back to basics with the sermon on the mount.
A practical story:
I started working with the teens at Awakenings Movement in September. We did a small series about living out the story that God has made you for. We discussed the story so far, looked at our role in the God story that was being played out around us, and about where the story is going. We wrapped that up and I felt pretty good about it.
I wasn’t sure what the next series was going to be so I decided to open the floor for questions. One of the first questions I got: “Why is it easier for white people to be Christians than black people?” Then: “When is violence okay?” “Does God still love you if you’re having sex [outside of marriage]?” “Why do Christians think they are right and everyone else is wrong?”
These were questions totally outside of the realm of teaching that I was doing. They didn’t need stupid series about the story we are in. They needed practical advice for what was going on in their lives right now. I was way off base from what they really needed. Additionally, some of those questions took me just being real with them about sex, violence, issues of race and the exclusive claims of Christianity.
In the end the practical lessons, conversations and transparency that came from those talks were much more formational and important to them than any 5 week series I could have written.