The Big Idea

The Big Idea: Aligning the Ministries of your Church through Creative Collaboration by Ferguson, Ferguson and Bramlett challenges churches to think hard about the message we communicate and how we go about doing it. Fittingly, the strength of this book is its big idea. Disturbingly, I found some of its weaknesses lie in the details.

If you go to church regularly it’s a worthwhile exercise to write down how many different little ideas you have to take in each week. If you consider the welcome signs or banners, printed handouts, messages on the screen, various announcements, the MC or leaders comments, intros to songs, the songs themselves, children’s talks, prayers about different topics, video clips, Bible readings, the sermon, various connected or disconnected points within the sermon, more songs, closing comments, conversations over supper or morning tea… you can see the problem. What message do you take home from church? Add to this the family context – if children and youth are looking at unrelated material, learning about different things, and engaged in different activities, then families could have dozens of ‘take home messages’. What gets remembered? What sinks in? What gets put into action? This book argues for alignment, getting our message focused. It’s premised on the observation that more information means less clarity and less action.

We have bombarded our people with too many competing little ideas, and the result is a church with more information and less clarity than ever before.  (p19)

The passion behind the big idea is for churches to be communities of transformation, not simply information. This requires genuine relationships and a focus on personal change. Small groups, for example, aren’t to be tutorials or study groups, but rather places where people care and share, challenge and support, confide and confess, learn and grow together. At Community Christian Church, where the authors serve as pastors, they adopted sermon-based studies to align the small groups with the weekly church celebrations around the same big idea. This approach is much the same as that described by Larry Osborne in Sticky Church. Yet, not only do they seek to align small groups with the big idea, but also families, ministries, congregations and other churches in their network. One big idea shapes everything they do.

What does this look like? It begins with planning the preaching program a year ahead. Topics and series are worked out and positioned carefully with regard to the annual calendar. At thirteen weeks out, the teaching team write a short essay that fleshes out the series and each topic within. These are called big idea graphs. The graphs are distributed to the relevant people so that at nine weeks out a creative team meeting can brainstorm how to shape the church service by the big idea. This meeting will include the leaders of teaching, drama, music and other areas needed to determine and shape the service content. At five weeks this gets a reality check. At three weeks the teaching team and the small group curriculum writers collaborate to construct a big idea sermon and discussion guide. At two weeks the big idea teaching manuscript is finished so that preachers in different congregations or churches can take the manuscript and personalise it to their own style and to suit their congregations. This is also passed on to the media team and others who will organise slides, graphics, scriptures references, and other things needed for the particular service. The whole process is very collaborative and teams are the order of the day. Even the sermons are a cooperative exercise. The long lead times opens options for creativity and ensures that things are done well.

There is much to like about this approach, but I will reveal my concerns first. The authors openly admit that topical preaching is their preferred and normal practice. They brainstorm and discuss possible sermon ideas and vote on which ones to pursue in the following year. It seems that much of the creative work in preparing sermons takes place as people share their ideas about the topic. Working out which Bible texts might be relevant to the topic is only done after the topics are nutted out. I don’t believe this is the healthiest approach to determining a preaching plan. It can mean we’re driven by popular ideas and what we think people will find interesting. Many important themes addressed in the Bible will never be heard and certain hobby horses will often get ridden. I’d much prefer to follow a staple diet of expository preaching so that we let God’s word put the topics on our agenda. Look to get a balance from different parts of the Bible and mix it up from time to time with some specific topics and occasional messages. In fact, I’d love to see a book like this written from the starting point of expository preaching.

I’m also worried about what doesn’t really get described in this book. One example is their skeleton for weekly adult services:

  1. Praise choruses (opening of service)
  2. Campus pastor moment (greeting)
  3. Creative element (video, sketch, or song or a combination)
  4. Teaching
  5. Communion
  6. Giving back to God (offering)
  7. Praise choruses (closing of service)  (p133)

While admitting that we can replace the nouns we see with whatever describes our own church’s style, system and mode, it concerns me what they’ve left out. Where does prayer feature? Where does Bible reading fit in? What preparation goes into these areas? I have to admit that the heavy emphasis on the creative arts and the silence about prayer and Bible reading in the church service left me concerned. The storyline of this book is about BIG church and is dominated by the ‘performance’ on weekends. This is not to say it’s irrelevant to small churches with single pastors. I think there’s some great wisdom here, but it needs careful transposing.

So what did I find helpful? Let me focus on two strengths of The Big Idea. Firstly, the alignment of message in the church. My experience is that too often we have many little ideas competing for people’s attention and the message we most want people to hear gets seriously diluted. We have so many announcements that we forget most of them and can’t differentiate their importance. Sometimes the songs have no relationship to the message. Or the prayers are completely unrelated to everything else going on. Or the talk seems more like a commentary than a sermon, picking up too many ideas from the Bible passage without highlighting and applying the main one.

I’m not beating up on our church now. I’m very encouraged by the fact that our church has a weekly team meeting to discuss each service, make sure the different parts are connected, link the music to the message, integrate the kids talk, discuss priorities and emphases with the service leader, and more. We’ve also been following the same teaching programs with adults, youth, and children and this has enabled us to pool our resources and help families to focus on the big idea each week.

The second strength of this approach, is the emphasis on preparing well ahead. It worries me when I keep hearing of pastors writing their talks on the Saturday night before church, the kids talk being thrown together without much thought, the Bible reader being organised as we walk into church, the musicians not being given or not learning the songs until just before church. It doesn’t need to be this way. It doesn’t take any more work to be organised weeks ahead, but it does require discipline and organisation. 

I’ve always worked to get a draft preaching plan in place a year, or at least a term, ahead. This requires a lot of work, reading the relevant books, working out the preaching units, determining the big idea, conveying this briefly in a sermon title. It may mean setting aside a week or more to achieve it. We’ve mostly published these for the upcoming term so people know where we’re headed and can prepare as needed. In the preceding term I’ve been working on the upcoming book of the Bible, reading commentaries, writing notes and drafting ideas. I put these in a note book and draw on them when I get to preparing the actual sermons. I’ve tended to prepare the actual sermons in the week that I’ll deliver them. However, one year I managed to get about six weeks ahead with my talks. I’d write the rough draft weeks ahead, and tune it up in the final week. I can testify to this delivering a better product and removing a lot of stress. If I had my time again, I’d like to make this normal!

Our youth programs are worked out a term ahead and publicised. This enables the team to share responsibilities among the leaders while keeping to the big idea. Working on the children’s ministry material well ahead helps the creative process and good integration with the adult and youth programs.  Other churches manage to prepare Bible study and discussion guides for the upcoming teaching series. (We’ve only managed it once or twice, but we do manage to get them out each week!) These guides connect with the sermons. This means the big idea of all sermons needs to be worked out well ahead, so that the studies are integrated with the teaching. Advance planning assists the music teams to choose songs that connect with the big idea. It ensures we think carefully about what we’re praying about. It opens the door to creative ideas that we could never pull off the night before. And it takes some of the stress out of planning church.

All in all, I’d recommend this book to pastors and leaders as they look to the year ahead. Read it through before you spend a few days with your team planning for 2013. You did plan a planning time, didn’t you? Or perhaps you’re well organised and have already done it!

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