If you are part of the family at Oak Hill, that means that you are involved in a Gospel Community. Gospel Communities are where we practice relational discipleship and care in order to equip servants who abide, grow, and endure in Jesus Christ. One foundational element of our Gospel Community gatherings is our sermon discussion time. The preacher provides questions in the sermon notes on Sunday, and the Gospel Community discusses them at their mid-week gathering. While the concept of sermon discussion might seem simple enough on the surface, not all sermon discussions are created equal. We must understand the why and the what behind sermon discussion to more effectively participate so that everyone walks away built up in their faith.
Below are seven “nudges” that I’ve used in the past to train our Gospel Community leaders toward more effective sermon discussion. These concepts are important for everyone in the group to understand as they discuss the sermon. A “nudge” implies that a small shift can make a big difference. The starting point isn’t necessarily bad, but there is definitely room for growth. As you read through these seven nudges, consider how you could grow in your participation as you discuss Sunday’s sermon with an aim at relational discipleship and care.
1. From Generic Truisms to Scriptural Truth
In most of life, we are not often challenged to think scripturally as long as something sounds right. A proverb like, “A penny saved is a penny earned,” may have some biblical backing, but it is not scripture, and lacks nuance of the biblical storyline. Even when we say or think something that is biblically based, we are not often pressed to show how we arrived at that statement from the scriptures themselves. However, we are called to be people of the book. We know and believe that the scriptures are the only source of eternal truth.
Therefore, this nudge is to keep the scripture central. Each Gospel Community should read the whole text that was preached at the beginning of the discussion, and the relevant portions of the text before asking each question. Typically, sermon discussions should follow the outline of the sermon to give a common framework for everyone present. But the real challenge is to constantly refer back to the scripture as we work through the discussion questions. If someone answers with a generic truism, redirect them back to the scripture being studied and encourage them to support their statements from the text. This job does not only belong to the discussion leader (don’t make him always be the bad guy!). Challenge one another to relate any comments based on other scriptures back to the central scripture for the evening.
Here is a test to see if you have succeeded at this nudge: someone who has not heard the sermon should be able to engage in the discussion based on the scripture alone.
2. From Closed Questions to Open Questions
We all want to give a “right” answer; therefore, we answer in ways that we think are safe. But that’s not the point of sermon discussion. The discussion questions in your sermon notes are designed with open questions, and your GC leader is trained to ask these types of questions. Closed questions have one right answer that usually can be described in a few words, such as, “What was the name of Moses’ Father-in-law” or “Who is the one we should rely on for everything?” They are trivia or factually based questions. Open questions, on the other hand, allow for a variety of answers.
Closed questions serve a specific and important purpose, which is to verify understanding of the set of facts. These questions are well-suited for observations and some obvious interpretations of the scripture passage. Don’t be afraid to answer them if and when they are asked.
However, open questions allow people to wrestle with those same facts and discover things about what the Lord is revealing and their relationship to his revelation. These questions are more suited for discussing the implications and applications in their lives. Open questions require more time to process, so don’t be afraid of a little silence. You will also do yourself and the group a favor if you consider the questions ahead of time. If you are typically a “first talker” in the group (you know who you are), give others the space to think, process, and answer too.
3. From Observation/Interpretation to Application
We have a hard time faithfully making the jump from the original context to our contemporary context. Typically, we err on one of two sides: unapplied observation and interpretation, or ungrounded application.
Observation and interpretation are important. They provide the foundation for good application. To this end, we provide study guides with each sermon series to help you grow in these skills in daily personal study. You should bring your takeaways from your study into the discussion. Further, the preacher should have laid out the necessary observation and interpretation from his own study. Therefore, the main objective for the GC gathering in these two parts of study is to confirm understanding.
However, most of the GC discussion should be focused on “application,” which may be better stated, “heart-level response.” By this, I do not mean, “It seems to me” or “this made me think of” or “this made me feel” discussions. I mean that the point of sermon discussion is to get to the point of sharing, “This is how the Lord was working on my heart as the word was preached.” The preacher should also have laid out some general implications of the scripture. These are a launching point for more discussion, but not the end goal. The preacher cannot effectively apply the text directly to each individual person, and therefore the role of the GC is to help each person develop personal, specific heart-level application.
In this, it is important to recognize the different giftings, personalities, and life situations in your group to help explore how the truths from God’s Word presented in the sermon apply in broader categories than any one person thinks.
4. From Vague Generality to Clear Specificity
This nudge is similar to point one, but here I’m thinking about the way we describe our heart-response and/or personal application. In Lancaster County culture, we tend to talk around a subject rather than getting right to the point. Further, the paths of growth and repentance can often seem unclear to the disciple because it is uncharted territory. Therefore, we offer vague ideas for application that sound right (and often are right) but lack substance or intentionality.
When you hear someone offer a vague application in response to a question such as, “I guess I should pray more,” ask a clarifying question such as, “what are some specific ways that you can plan to pray more?” Challenge one another to commitment to live those things out. If possible, make it a follow-up point for the week to come by sending them a text or giving them a call to see how it is going.
Be sure to check back next week for nudges 5-7. For now, considering the list above, which one or two nudges do you want to apply in the next three months? How will you apply them?