And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship,
to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
- Acts 2:42

Just Jesus and me.

It sounds correct, even noble, on the surface. At least that’s what I thought when I first heard it in my initial years of spiritual formation. The idea is that followers of Jesus should be disicpled to such a degree they can be independent in their growth. In other words, when they are trained in areas like interpreting the Bible, praying, and having a “Quiet Time,” then, like a kid turning 18, they can fly the spiritual coop. They don’t have to have others’ help to grow spiritually. With a Bible in hand and knowing how to feed themselves, they have all they need. They’re independent.

Now, don’t misunderstand. I believe young (and old) Christians should learn to individually use their Bibles in order to grow spiritually. What I’m against is leading budding Christians to think independence equates to spiritual maturity. It doesn’t. There is no picture in the New Testament showing mature Christians living independently from the local church. Not one. On the contrary, it seems mature (and immature) Christians are not only connected by fellowship within the community found in the local church but growing spiritually with them as well. Put another way, the aim of maturity isn’t independence but interdependence.

Believers should be trained not only to use the Bible individually but communally as a part of, and in fellowship with, the local church. In other words, we read, interpret, and apply the Bible not only in community but as a community. Far too often Christians read the New Testament’s “you’s” as individual appeals when many of those “you’s” are plural. As we would say in Texas, the “you’s” are “y’all’s.” That’s why the goal of helping people grow spiritually isn’t independence but interdependence. It’s to fly the coop knowing that the “y’all” will always be a part of spiritual growth.

Please note this isn’t a call for abandoning individual reading of the Bible, prayer, etc. Conversely, if spiritual disciplines can only be done in community then one has moved from biblical independence to ungodly co-dependence. The call to interdependence isn’t a mandate to abdicate the personal but to embrace the communal. It’s to live as you were redeemed – not merely as a person but as a people (cf. Dt. 7:6, Jer. 24:7, Rev. 21:3). Thus, while I want to train converts how to feed themselves, I don’t want them merely to eat by themselves. 1

The goal in discipling is interdependence not independence, because the truth is, it isn’t just Jesus and me but Jesus and us.

 

 

Notes:

  1. I think it worth noting Peter’s call by Christ was not to teach people to feed themselves but to feed them (Jn. 21:15-17). I don’t think it too much a stretch to deduce that church leadership likely has some role with using the Bible in the spiritual formation of God’s people.

Saturday Night Special. Gun enthusiasts understand this as any kind of cheap handgun. Others know it as a song from Lynyrd Skynyrd. But preachers employ this term for messages written the night before a Sunday morning service. Now, most of the pastors I speak with don’t usually begin and end their sermon writing on Saturday, but many of them work on their messages all the way up to Saturday night. I don’t. My routine is to write the guts of my message by Tuesday and finish it all by noon Wednesday. I edit my manuscript down to a preaching outline by Thursday morning. That’s it. I don’t even see or think about my sermon until I read it aloud on Saturday night. I like this routine. In fact, I made it a point to shift to message prep which terminated early in the week instead of late. I did so by drawing a line in my week where I said I would not work on my sermon anymore. Let me give you three reasons to consider drawing a line in your week when it comes to completing your message prep.

It puts the right hours on the right things

Many preachers think they need time later in the week to “fine tune” their message in order to improve the sermon from a 60 to a 90. In all likelihood, those extra hours only enhance the message from 80 to an 82. In other words, the improvement isn’t monumental but incremental. And when you consider how much time invested in the second half of the week for sermon prep…including Saturday…it’s just not worth the investment. The message won’t improve as dramatically as you think. But drawing a line in your week is a guardrail that allows you to better steward your time as not only a preacher but a leader. So instead of spending 8-10 hours later in the week to move your message incrementally, free up those hours to impact your church monumentally. Put the right hours on the right things.

QUESTION: What hours are you giving your sermon that you should be giving to something else in your church?

It makes a statement about your priorities outside of preaching

Drawing a line in your week makes you available to the things most important to you outside of preaching. Take family as an example. I don’t spend evenings with my sermon. I spend evenings with my family. Finishing my sermon earlier in the week makes a statement to my wife and kids that they are a priority. Being available to my sermon at the beginning of the week means I’m available to my family on nights and weekends. When I’m with my family I’m truly with them. I’m not thinking about illustrations when I see my kid pitch at his Little League game. I don’t wonder how I’ll intro my message when I’m out to eat with my wife. Drawing a line in my week makes a statement just as much about my life as a husband, father, and friend as it does for my life as a preacher.

QUESTION: What does your current sermon preparation routine say about your other priorities?

It gives you time to work on the ‘how’ of your sermon

Far too often preachers work on the what of their sermon at the expense of the how of their sermon. Unfortunately, hours if not days are given to developing content for a message while mere minutes are given to the delivery of that content. But drawing a line in your week can encourage you to give at least some thought to your sermon’s delivery. If, for example, your line is Wednesday noon for the sermon’s what, you still have quite a bit of time (without running into the weekend) to think through the sermon’s how. And believe me, the how of a message is a big deal.

QUESTION: How much of your sermon preparation is focused on your delivery?

Give it a try. Draw a line in your week. Tell yourself that the sermon prep, for all intents and purposes, is done when you get to that line. You’ll be tempted to blow past it. Excuses ad infinitum. But for your sake, your family’s sake, and your church’s sake consider not only drawing a line in your week…but sticking to it. Let Saturday Night Specials be the rare exception instead of the norm. You’ll be better for it. And so will your family and your church.

My old sermon notes next to my recent sermon manuscript.

Today I pulled from my shelf a Bible given to me by my father during my first semester of college. In it I found several old sermon outlines I preached during my time in school. I was immediately struck by the difference between those old sermon notes and the ones I use today. My old notes were handwritten, one-page outlines mostly composed of phrases, alliterated points, and Scripture references. There wasn’t one complete paragraph I could find in any of them. Illustrations were simply noted by the letter “I” with circle around it, followed by a word or two (e.g., man with dog, broken bicycle). This epitomized my sermon preparation. I would study, take mental notes, scratch a few things out here and there on a scrap of paper, then proceed to write a sermon outline from which to preach. That was it. I continued this simple process through seminary, my first full-time position, up to my initial years at my current church, Clear Creek Community Church. If memory serves me correctly, my first sermon at CCCC was preached from something akin to a 5×7 note card on which was written a rather scant outline.

It was a good process. It was efficient (I don’t like to over-prepare). It fit my preaching style (I am an extemporaneous preacher). I felt it would serve me well for the long-haul and yet, today, I employ a preparation process whereby I manuscript the entire message (though I still preach from an outline). Why? Initially, it’s because I admired the preaching of my Senior Pastor Bruce Wesley. He manuscripted his messages and would preach the lights out! I thought I could possibly get better as a preacher by doing the same. Today, I see at least three reasons why I like manuscripting messages in the sermon prep process while still preaching from an outline:

#1: Manuscripting refines my thinking.

In the editing process I’m better able to see how different sections interact with each other. Does my illustration really support what I’ve just spoken? Is this the best place for it in my message? Am I saying too much here or not enough? You may be able to do this to some degree with a generalized outline; however, a manuscript affords me greater clarity about my thought process in putting a sermon together. I don’t have to debate what I’m thinking at each point in the message, the manuscript shows me what I’m thinking. In fact it does so in great deal in addition to what, if any, changes need to be made.

#2: Manuscripting sharpens my speaking.

I think saying your sermon aloud is invaluable. What you hear in your head as you read your notes can be very different once you speak out your sermon. When I speak though my message it helps me see where different elements of it may be too chunky or too thin or just right. A manuscript allows me to work as closely as possible to the message that actually gets preached on Sunday. I can hear in detail, for example, how a phrase sounds. Can it be rewritten for greater effectiveness? Is this the best way to communicate what I need said? Are there more memorable ways of saying this? I also find manuscripting keeps from from rambling, chasing unhelpful rabbits, or being incoherent in the pulpit. Honestly, it helps me from being lazy. I can’t say, “Well, I’ll just figure out how to say that on Sunday.”

#3: Manuscripting is better stewardship.

In my early years, being invited to speak at other churches was always an exercise in frustration. I would pull out my sermon notes and, because they were in sparse outline form, were essentially un-preachable. I would read something like “Illustration: Man with Dog.” That was it! Manuscripting filled in the blanks. It took out the guesswork and blank stares that went with my meager sermon outlines. It made me a good steward of all the hard work I’d put into preaching. Manuscripting allowed me to not only re-preach messages but to also use that content in future endeavors (e.g., training material, seminars, etc.).

Once again, I don’t preach from a manuscript. I don’t bring one into the pulpit (I take a really big outline with me). I’m still a rather extemporaneous speaker. More often than not I prefer flow to precision. And while it’s more time consuming, using a manuscript in the sermon prep process has been more rewarding. Try it. See if it refines your thinking, sharpens your speaking, and is a better way to steward the gift God has given you.