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On Faith

Preaching by Committee

More Pastors Use Group Approach, Multimedia Presentation

By Lila Arzua
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 5, 2004; Page C01

On Faith appears the first Sunday of each month.

Many worshipers see it as the loneliest part of a minister's job: crafting a sermon alone, in the wee hours, the only aids a Bible and some reference books before presenting the fully formed product to the congregation the next day.

At Purcellville Baptist Church, laymen and clergy offer critiques and ideas to help Pastor David Janney, with head bowed, create his weekly sermon. (Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

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But increasingly, that view of sermon-writing is outdated. At a growing number of churches, the pastor's message is the painstaking work of a committee -- a panel of church staff and congregants who meet weekly to suggest sermon topics, critique the minister's prose and examine how his or her preaching will mesh with other elements of the service.

One goal of these worship-planning teams is to ensure that the minister's words will resonate with all segments of a demographically diverse congregation. Often, the team's job is to turn the sermon into a multimedia experience, with specialists in music, drama and video technology making contributions that become just as important as the pastor's writing.

"It's happening more and more as they will all bring different gifts to the table," said Randel Everett, president of the John Leland Center for Theological Studies, a Baptist-affiliated seminary in Arlington.

Everett compares the trend to the way that TV programs built around a lead character gradually have been replaced by shows with ensemble casts. He said that he has noticed the movement toward collaborative sermons for more than a decade but that it has become prevalent in the last three years.

At Purcellville Baptist Church in Loudoun County, the Rev. David Janney meets with a worship committee for several hours every Wednesday afternoon to discuss his sermon. Janney typically shows them a draft 11 days before he plans to deliver it. The group of about eight people, which includes other clergy, administrators and one elder, also decides on sermon topics, selecting them several months in advance.

At a recent meeting, Janney made a number of changes at the committee's suggestion. His sermon's focus was to urge families to stay together and engage in as many joint activities as possible. "If you don't spend time with them, they won't spend time with you," he had written.

Membership coordinator Dania O'Connor recommended starting the sentence, "When we don't spend time with them," to acknowledge that everyone -- even the pastor -- sometimes fails to set aside enough time for family. Others agreed that that wording sounded less judgmental.

Music director Brian Bush suggested that Janney talk about "second chances" -- how people can reconnect with their estranged parents and children. So the pastor added about seven minutes of comments on that theme and truncated another section.

"You've made it a much more powerful message just by your feedback," Janney told the group.

The church started using the new system in the fall. Janney said he was inspired by a video he saw in September at an interdenominational conference for pastors and church staff members, which showed a pastor brainstorming ideas for his sermon with a "creative team." Officials at that church, Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Tex., said they produced the video in response to inquiries from other houses of worship interested in learning about a collaborative system.

Janney said he had realized over the summer that he needed to make changes in his approach to his sermons, sensing that they tended to drag and that the response from the congregation was often weak. "If you come out of the service and say that the sermon was wise and informative but you didn't sense the Spirit's power, then we failed on Sunday," he said.

The new system has been popular with the congregation, which has responded positively to the group approach and views it as a sign that the church's leadership cares about everyone's issues and concerns, Janney said.

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