The Applied Word
Why do we do what we do?
Welcome to The Bridge Church. If you’re new here, you’ll undoubtedly notice that we do things a little differently here than you might be used to at other evangelical churches. Perhaps it’s the geography of the service - the way we set things up and use our space; or perhaps it the style of the service - either more formal, or less formal than you might be used to from where you came; or perhaps it’s the form of the service - the way we structure and order the elements of worship over the course of 90 minutes. Whatever you’ve noticed, I want to tell you that much of it is intentional, and there are important reasons for why they are the way they are.
If you’re not new here, perhaps you’ve been here for a while and find our unique way of doing things familiar, or perhaps you’ve been here so long that you remember a time when things were different and perhaps long for a time gone by. I want to take the better part of the next semester on the blog to remind you of why we do what we do, and to help you remember the very intentional reasons we have for the choices we have made. Last time we looked at why and how we read the Bible in our worship services, and continuing over the next six or so weeks we will be looking at the following aspects of our worship service to better help you understand/remember who we are, why we do what we do, and what are the goals of our choices.
The Geography of Worship - what we want you to notice and experience when you walk into our space for worship
A Peculiar People; a Thankful People - why we start with the offering
Perfectly Balanced as All Things Should Be - how we consider both who we are and who we long to be when choosing a vocabulary of worship (song style and selection)
The Proclaimed Word - rediscovering the public reading of scripture
The Applied Word - why the sermon is dialogical (discussion questions matter)
The Great Unburdening - the liberating power of corporate confession
Recognizing the Body - why we take time every Sunday for the passing of the peace
A Community of Hospitality - how and why we centre the service around the open table
The Power of Presence - why the prayer and ministry time at the end of the service is not just an addendum
Sending - what we bring back into the world
This week we continue the series with an examination of why we make such a big deal about the reading of the scripture in the service, and what affect we believe that this practice has on the congregation.
Some of you may know that in addition to being a pastor, and a husband, and a father, I am also a student. I'm a lifelong learner and currently that passion is being expressed through a focus on completing my masters degree at Providence Seminary. I've been working on this degree for a long time, and in the course of that season I have taken many different types of courses: weekly semestered courses, week-long modular courses, online courses, and even correspondence courses. All of those courses have been educational, I learned something in every one of them, but there is a marked difference in the amount I learned between the courses where I got to meet face-to-face with my instructor and classmates, and those which I processed information largely on my own. In the classes where I was able to (and sometimes forced to) interact with other people to wrestle with ideas, ask questions, and apply the principles - I walked away with a deeper appreciation for not only the subject matter, but for the way in which it related to my life and ministry.
I tell you that story at the beginning because I believe that fundamentally, the part of the service that we call the "sermon" or "message" functions in much the same way. If I do my job well as a preacher, I will undoubtedly communicate something true and useful to you. But if you aren't allowed (or for some of you, forced) to then take that information and process it in the context of a community of faith and learning (i.e. the local church as expressed around your tables), then you are only getting an information dump, and you are leaving on the table (pun intended) so much more that God wants for you.
But this isn't just a matter of the personal learning style of your pastor being forced upon the whole community, at The Bridge Church we have a core value of discipleship that happens through transparency where the sharing of our lives with one-another is the means by which God helps us grow. We fundamentally believe that the opportunity to process these deep truths of the scripture in open and honest collaboration with our brothers and sisters is the means that God uses to take us deeper into himself. And so when we preach, we endeavour to make time for you to then discuss, ask questions, and process the sermon together so that you can grow. How does this (admittedly) uncomfortable process actually help?
Processing in community help us to see past ourselves
How many times have you sat through a message where the pastor was really driving something home and thought to yourself, "I really hope Susan is getting this. She really needs to hear this message from God!" I know that I have. It's a natural thing to be blinded to the way God's word speaks to our circumstances and instead to assume that we're already good. It's natural to assume that our expression of the sermon application is the right expression and that our way of dealing with the tension of the text is the only way to see things. However, when you are forced to answer questions about the application in community, you quickly come to realize that the people across the table from you see and experience the situation very differently than you might.
Once that apple cart has been upended, you are forced to deal with the reality that perhaps this message wasn't for "Susan" (or not at least only for Susan) but armed with a new perspective, it might just be for you to consider and apply as well.
Processing in community allows us to rediscover the value of familiar texts and stories
One of the perils of my studies at seminary is that I am covering a lot of the same ground I covered in my undergrad degree in theology. Some weeks in class I lament that I'm not learning anything that I didn't know before. But that arrogance and short-sightedness is challenged every time I am made to interact with a classmate about the issue that seems so settled in my mind. Likewise, we can come to certain sermons based on familiar messages and instinctively tune out because we think that over the course of a long life following Jesus that we've already learned everything we can learn from a given text, or we think that we've heard that sermon before. In doing so we start to tune-out from what the Holy Spirit might want to say to us because we think there is nothing new to say. But the reality is that there is ALWAYS something new to learn, God's mercies to us through his word are new every morning if we allow them to be. And one of the surefire ways to be jolted out of complacency in this area is to to process the sermon in community - especially with people you might not be as familiar with. We all hear different things when we approach a text, or listen to a sermon. And when you hear what you neighbour got out of a sermon, and it's different than what you were willing to hear because of closed-mindedness, you get the blessing of a familiar text being made new once again.
Processing in community forces us to start to apply what we've learned.
Even after you've come to terms with the fact that the message was for you as well, and that there are parts of the message that you didn't already know, there is still the issue of application. I teach my preaching students that the goal of a good sermon is not about how much information you can communicate, but (by God's sovereign grace) how much people change in response to it. A person who hears the truth of God and then walks away unchanged is likened by the Apostle James to a person who looks at their reflection in a mirror and then walks away and forgets what they look like. We desperately want you to experience not just a good sermon, but an encounter with the risen Christ when you come to church, but that encounter demands a response from you. If God speaks through the message (and we believe that he does!) then how are you going to respond to what he has said? Ultimately that question gets borne out in the days and weeks following the message as you live your life in response to it, but we want to help you along that process by giving you concrete application questions to wrestle with in community. By wrestling with these things in community you do several important things:
You increase sermon retention. What gets discussed gets remembered. An unprocessed message will be 50% forgotten by the time you get home for lunch and over 90% forgotten by the next morning. It's a sad reality. If you are forced to interact with it right away those numbers go up drastically.
You ask the right questions. Sometimes even the best intentions of application get sidetracked by not knowing how to proceed. We work hard to craft discussion questions that are both accessible and incisive to help you quickly get to the root of your personal response to Jesus.
You have accountability. Whether you are processing with family, friends, or people you barely know - when you say something out loud in front of others, you are exponentially more motivated to follow-through with it. Often you'll even do better as those who love and care for you will follow-up to see how you're doing with that thing you identified as your needed personal response to the message. This is where we come back to discipleship through transparency. We cannot become the people that God is calling us to be on our own. We need the community of faith to help us along the way, and when you process these things in community, you are giving the community permission to walk with you as you apply these things.
For these reasons (and so many others) we put you in a position that we know many of you don't like on Sunday morning. Not because we want to make your experience at church unpleasant, but because we want you to grow. We believe that the act of preaching is a transformational encounter, but it will only be all that it can be when we create an environment where that growth is stimulated and can flourish.
Join us next week as we look at the purpose and value of our corporate time of confession in our next instalment of this series.