As we near the end of 2016, I’ve taken some time to reflect on the past year, particularly when it comes to preaching. Every year I try to devote some time to processing how things went – what was effective, what was less than stellar, and how I can improve. Just like an artist, an actor/actress, or even a coach, there are some final products that I’m personally more pleased with than others. I think working back through what seemed to be most and least effective, along with figuring out why, is an important discipline if you are serious about your craft. This is a yearly attempt to stay disciplined as a preacher, teacher, and communicator.
In general, I would say that preaching this year has been both harder and easier than in years past. The part that has come easier is the delivery side of the message, as I am grow
ing more comfortable communicating on a stage. There were some tangible delivery goals I was able to accomplish over the past 12 months, some of which were aided by using a chair and pub table. This approach has allowed me to be more deliberate and even slow down (just a hair). The aspects that have been harder this yearhave been on the content creation side of the process. In October, I reached my six-year anniversary of being Lead Pastor at Harris Creek. The most candid way to put it is that I feel like I hit a bit of a wall this year. When you preach 40+ times a year for six straight years, it’s not always easy to keep your creative edge while also remaining rooted in Scripture. The delicate balance is to try to keep reading Scripture with a fresh perspective without getting too “cute” with it and end up butchering what the text is actually saying.
The other unique challenge in 2016 was changing my approach to preparation due to the design of Elements. To begin with, the sermons in Elements are slightly different than the way I tend to teach. This was something I warmed up to because, as I said earlier, I probably needed to change something up after hitting a creative wall. The process of creating content for Elements is also much more collaborative, with five other people having a role in the development of the material. Each voice at the table is uniquely gifted and incredibly helpful. On the flip side, it feels a bit like multiple artists trying to paint a picture on the same canvas. Each person might have a slightly different style, and it’s my job to bring a singular voice to the final product (including the sermons).
All in all, I am proud of the ground we covered as a congregation in 2016 and the license our people gave me to try new things. We have an incredibly flexible, gracious, and supportive ethos amongst our congregation. There is great value in people coming together on a weekly basis, doing their best to listen to the Spirit speak through Scripture, and earnestly seeking to respond obediently to what God is saying to us. The approach I like to take in this recap is to follow this pattern: I am going to list the series from the last year, give you some “measurable stats” from my 2016 sermons, then follow that up with a list of my own commentary and reflections from my messages over the last year. I hope this gives you some helpful insight into my world and what goes into the sermons each week.
2016 MEASURABLE STATS
SERMON SERIES IN 2016
– Rebuilding from Rubble
– Rediscovering Freedom
– God in the Movies
– Thriving in Exile
– Two Pictures of Discipleship
– Elements: Unit 1
– The Glorious Return
LEAST FAVORITE SERMON: “Stone Tablets” from The Glorious Return
WHY: This one is still fresh for me, which means I’m still not over it. The week before this sermon we were coming off of a fairly intense stretch of discussions with our bank regarding the “Our Turn” initiative, and I updated everyone on the not-so-fun surprise appraisal. The following week, I was worn out. It took me twice as long to get something semi-coherent on paper for this message.
This was one of the few times I have ever had to work on a Saturday to land a message. Some pastors love to create “Saturday Night Specials.” Not me – they stress me out. All that to say, I was not as confident in the message as I wanted to be heading into the morning. I think one of the most challenging aspects of my job is having a “project” due every weekend for people to review, no matter how I feel or what’s going on. It’s part of it, and our congregation is always extremely gracious, as I stated earlier. But I personally hate when I haven’t landed things the way I wanted to in a message, and this one stands out to me as one of those times this happened in 2016.
FAVORITE SERMON: “From the Ground Up” from Rediscovering Freedom
WHY: This sermon was my message for Easter in 2016, and I felt like it struck the best balance of all my Easter sermons to date. The typical rhythm is for Easter to conclude our sermon series during the Season of Lent. This means people who haven’t been with us previously are hearing the final message that we’ve been building up to for six weeks. Easter also presents some distinct challenges because the demographics on Easter Sunday tend to be different than the typical makeup of our congregation the rest of the year. Finally, the congregation seems to be a little “stiff” (from my perspective) every year on Easter Sunday. This is probably due to the fact that we have more guests, we have church members who have invited friends, and people are even a little more formal in how they dress compared to your average Sunday.
My first few years, I was not exactly prepared for these shifts and the different dynamic in the room on Easter. This year, I felt like I was able to anticipate what was coming and speak to the people in the room. That meant speaking to our congregation and wrapping up our series in a satisfying way. It also meant speaking to newcomers in such a way that they could join the conversation without feeling lost. Finally, it meant speaking to anyone who might be a skeptic in such a way that might make them more open them to the revolutionary power of the resurrection. With all that is on the line every Easter, it’s easy to get disappointed with yourself as a communicator and feel as though you didn’t do it justice. This year, I was pleased and content with how things landed.
LEAST FAVORITE SERIES: God in the Movies
WHY: This is typically an annual series that I really look forward to every spring. This year, I felt a little more constrained based on feeling conflicted over a particular movie I considered reviewing. The film had an “R” rating, but it was not for the reasons that seem to be more gratuitous which sometimes draw this rating. The violence and disturbing images that caused it to be restricted carried an important message in the film, and it was a message I believed was worthy of discussion. However, after getting some wise feedback from our leadership (elders and staff), I ultimately decided to go a different direction. It was also a conversation with another local pastor who I trust and respect that helped me make this decision. But the whole conversation had (and still has) me questioning if this series can accomplish its intended purpose of engaging the culture around us.
If there are films that seem to be shaping our culture and they aren’t overly perverse “just to be perverse,” I think those are movies we need to be aware of as Christians. Yet, I also recognize that there is a line here, and there are some conversations that can’t be had with the entire church family due to the broad range of both age and maturity levels within our congregation. The line on this whole discussion tends to be a bit of a moving target. I do know that if we simply talk about the parts of culture that we’re comfortable with or “family friendly,” then we need to probably call it for what it is – “God in the Disney Movies.” I’m still praying through which direction this needs to go in the future, but I’m thinking this series may have run its course.
FAVORITE SERIES: Thriving in Exile
WHY: For years, we’ve talked about “planning in pencil” around Harris Creek as part of what it means to be a leader on our team. This approach has two sides to it: (1) doing the hard work of actually charting the direction we are heading, and (2) being flexible enough to call an audible when the situation demands it. This series was one of the bigger “audibles” I’ve called when it comes to planning a sermon series. The original plan was to preach through the Book of Ecclesiastes last summer, but it just didn’t seem to fit where we were as a congregation. The next plan was to preach through the second half of the Book of Acts, the part that tends to get ignored. This, too, felt like it wasn’t exactly what was needed at the time.
Ultimately, we ended up studying the narrative portion of the Book of Daniel, and it was a series that seemed to be timely for where we are as a culture. “Upheaval” would be one word that I think accurately describes 2016 for many people. With an unconventional election on the national front and a lot of turmoil surrounding the highly visible Baylor football program at a local level, the past year was disorienting for many of our people. The story of Daniel was one that came to me as the summer was approaching, and it turned out to be a fascinating study. I personally learned a lot from Daniel’s story and the faithfulness of the Israelites in Exile. For something that wasn’t planned on my end of things, this series became a great encouragement to my own faith and hopefully the faith of many others.