Méabh checking out the flowers on a Sunday out in Co. Wicklow with Icon Community.

Méabh checking out the flowers on a Sunday out in Co. Wicklow                                                           with Icon Community.

After spending most of the day working on some stuff for our trip to New York in August, I sat down to write about some of that, and about three paragraphs in, it started going in a different direction. No idea if it’ll be of interest to anyone else, but something I’ve been thinking about.

Around mid-May I was asked to share on an upcoming Sunday at the church Liz and I are part of, Icon Community. I was excited to do it, but I stressed about preparing it far more than I should have. And I spent more time on it than I should have.

One thing I wanted to work once we got to Ireland was spending less time preparing to teach. Life having gone as it has the past few years, I haven’t had a lot of opportunity to do that. And when I jumped back in this month, I jumped right back in to my old patterns.

When I was first learning how to prepare a sermon, I was taught that a lot of time should go into each message…20 hours would be a minimum.

And that is about what I did since I started teaching back in 1988. But about 5 years ago, as we were preparing to leave the church in Ithaca and move to Dublin, a few things came up which made it clear that I needed to change that when we got here.

We wanted the church we started here to not be “Sunday-centric”.

I should probably explain that term as I do tend to use it often. When I refer to a church being Sunday-centric I mean that the vast majority of the time, money and energy of the staff and leaders of the church goes to the Sunday service. And when you hear constant pleas for more kids workers, more greeters, more helpers, etc, you’ll know you are in a Sunday-centric church. While Sunday is important, the Sunday-centric model creates a church that is unbalanced, because church becomes about what happens on Sundays rather than the rest of the week.

For me, generally 20 hours would have been the minimum. There are only so many hours in a week and if 20 or more of them go to message prep, and another 10 to 15 go to other Sunday type stuff…it isn’t too long before that’s your whole week.

And when that happens, things like discipleship gets pushed out… “Who has time to spend with people? I’ve got a Sunday to prepare for.” As I’ve written before, one of the big revelations that I had during my last year in Ithaca…we hadn’t been doing discipleship for years.

But even though I tried to focus more on discipleship my last year there, I still kept my old sermon prep patterns…I just worked more hours. (Which of course is not sustainable long-term.)

I had another realisation…there were a couple of leadership issues that were not going well, and I needed to deal with a couple of things. The problem was, to do them well, I needed to function in areas that were not strengths…they were actually glaring weaknesses…stuff I just wasn’t good at.

As the issues got worse, what I eventually realised was that rather than spending time dealing with these issues, and growing in certain areas, I spent even more time on message prep. In other words I put my energy into areas where I knew I could do well, and where I knew I’d receive positive feedback. All the while, this other area was getting worse, because I just didn’t want to deal with it.

Anyway, I’m trying to unlearn some old patterns. But they are still a bit ingrained.

When I first started teaching, I learned to do 3-point sermons, and each point had at least two sub-points…So I’d write out my outlines, make a note or two about a story to tell and then I was ready. But what eventually started happening is I’d finish and realise I forgot to say something I meant to say. I don’t actually remember if was ever anything crucial, but I became stressed enough about it that I began writing out my messages. This of course took even more time, but I rarely forgot what I wanted to say.

I eventually shifted to 1 point sermons. But still kept manuscripting. Mainly because it was a comfort to have the whole thing in front of me. In fact over the years, I’ve become less and less comfortable speaking without something well prepared.

The old saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And it’s always harder to make changes when we think we are getting good results. But there’s part of the problem…I was getting good results on my Sunday teaching…but discipleship? Not so much.

So for me to get to a point where I’m doing much less message prep in the future, (Tim Keller suggests 5-6 hours per week), there will naturally be challenges to my teaching/speaking. I’ll have to be uncomfortable for a bit. I may forget to make points, or tell stories that really would have helped. There’ll likely be a few times where Liz assures me, “It wasn’t that bad.”

And that’s extra difficult because most of us who’ve led churches know the premium placed on good preaching. In fact, think of how often you’ve heard a church leader/pastor talked about based on his “preaching style.” And compare that to how often people comment on how they are doing making disciples. (Which is even stranger when you think about how much people actually remember from last Sunday’s sermon.)

So while I’m convinced that I need to make this change, I think the trip may be a little bumpier and less straight forward than I’d like.