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Sermon series: Signs of Life

Many churches take time out from the rhythm of the lectionary in order to focus on particular issues of faith and discipleship by having a sermon series on a specific theme. Quite a lot of work goes into planning and preparing these—so wouldn’t it be a good idea to share them?! The first of these came from John Allister and described a series reflecting on the journey through the wilderness. Here, Garreth Frank, curate at St Nic’s, Nottingham, shares details of a sermon series we used over the summer on Signs of Life: A spiritual health check.

Concept

According to St Peter, Christians are ‘living stones’ sourcing their life from ‘the living stone’, who enables believers to create the ‘spiritual house’ that is the church (1 Peter 2.4-5).  Along similar lines, in 1 Corinthians 12, St Paul famously describes the church as the body of Christ. This metaphor re-appears in Ephesians 4, where Paul is concerned for said body’s health, hoping that it might mature, grow and flourish, relating to and reflecting Christ.

In biological terms, there are seven signs of life: movement; respiration; sensitivity; growth; reproduction; excretion; and nutrition. In light of his conviction that the church is essentially ‘an organism rather than an organisation,’ the minister and missiologist Mike Breen proposes that this biological framework offers a ‘useful diagnostic tool for assessing the spiritual health of those you disciple’.

Inspired by Breen and the Academy of Life discipleship programme produced by St George’s, Leeds, G2 York undertook a sermon series based on biological processes. During my time as one of G2’s student workers, I helped my then vicar and boss, Christian Selveratnam, put the series together. Several years later, at the beginning of my curacy at St Nic’s, Nottingham, I revisited this concept for a summer sermon series entitled: Signs of Life. In both cases, the aim was that the series might serve as a spiritual health check up for the church.

Construction 

The series took place over the course of 6 weeks between the end of July and the beginning of August, and was used during both morning and evening services. During what marks a transitional period in the life of St Nic’s, this represented an ideal time for us to pause and reflect on our spiritual health. This points to one of the primary applications of thematic sermon series: the possibility of addressing the pertinent needs of one’s context.

The key danger, meanwhile, of a thematic series is that it might lack biblical rootedness. In order to avoid this and provide the series with a canonical core, each topic was assigned with both an Old and New Testament text.

Due to the comings and going of the summer season, no fewer than seven speakers were involved in delivering the series. Whilst offering the benefit of a rich and refreshing variety of voices, this had the potential to undermine the coherence of the series. Consequently, we tried to counteract this possibility by producing a series guide which was sent to all speakers, which provided an outline of the aim of the series and a steer regarding the content of each individual talk.

Content 

Nutrition – Deuteronomy 8. 1-3; John 6. 25-40 

Week 1 explored the idea of spiritual nutrition, asking what it means to live ‘not by bread alone, but every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ Specifically, this involved focusing on the source and sustenance of our spiritual life, the living Word (Jesus Christ) made known through the written Word (Holy Scripture).

Respiration – Isaiah 61. 1-4; Galatians 5. 16-26 

Week 2 equated respiration with the role and inspiration of the Holy Spirit in discipleship. It focused on the role of Spirit in creation, as well as in forming the church and transforming the lives of disciples.

Sensitivity – Proverbs 27. 17; Ephesians [3.14-21] 4. 1-6

Week 3 equated sensitivity with the communal life of the church. In particular, this involved exploring how the church bears with and builds one another up for the benefit of health of Christ’s body.

Excretion – Psalm 51; 1 John 1. 8-9

Week 4 equated excretion with the theological theme of forgiveness, alongside the spiritual discipline of confession. This sermon simultaneously challenged the church to live an accountably, whilst emphasising the freedom and forgiveness available through the person and work of Christ.

Reproduction – 2 Kings 2. 1-15; Matthew 28. 16-20

Week 5 equated reproduction with making disciples alongside developing Christian leaders. This meant emphasising not simply evangelism, but the nurturing of new believers and mentoring the next generation of those who will serve and lead God’s church.

Movement and Growth – Genesis 12. 1-3 1 Corinthians 3.5-15 

Week 6 concluded the series by exploring the key purpose of spiritual health. Namely, that disciples might move and grow in faith, in order to serve God and take part in the work that he is doing in the world.

Resources 

Mike Breen, Building a Discipling Culture (Zondervan) – see chapter 12 on ‘Spiritual Health’

Mark Powley/St George’s Leeds, Academy of Life


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7 Responses to Sermon series: Signs of Life

  1. John Leach October 10, 2017 at 9:59 am #

    Can I take this opportunity for a shameless plug for my How to Preach Strategically which advocates sermon series as against lectionary? https://grovebooks.co.uk/products/w-211-how-to-preach-strategically

  2. Father Ron Smith October 10, 2017 at 11:00 pm #

    The Churches’ Lectionary is geared to an evolving explication of the Bible in an ordered sequence. It has been given to the Church in order to avoid the extra-biblical sermons that can result from the polemical preacher’s desire to present his own understanding of the Bible – rather than that of the ordered thinking of the Churches’ assessment of how biblical hermeneutic might best be explored.

    In the Eucharist, in New Zealand churches, our clergy are advised to ‘stick to the lectionary’ – a process that ensures clergy don’t go off on a tangent that favours their own particular hobby horse.This process requires the sort of discipline that best preserves the congregation from puritanical ranting.

    • Simon Ponsonby October 11, 2017 at 7:57 am #

      Fr Ron – are those churches in NZ that stick to the lectionary in their preaching the large or growing ones?
      This is a serious not factious question. A friend who has been doing research into the largest120 Anglican churches in UK has found that about only 3 follow the lectionary (though all would follow church calendar/seasons). This is intriguing in part, because to follow the lectionary would result in more, not less Scripture being read in church which in the larger, growing evangelical churches would generally be a high value. Nevertheless, lectionary based churches are not generally evangelical or charismatic and not flourishing numerically. I suspect this has more to do with other factors than the selection of readings.

      • Simon Ponsonby October 11, 2017 at 7:58 am #

        spelling correction – facetious not factious – although it may also be a factious 😉

    • Ian H October 15, 2017 at 6:05 pm #

      Father Ron….

      The Lectionary ‘given to the Church’? One might ask; ‘ By whom?’ Anglican lectionaries (plural for accuracy as there isn’t one inspired version…) haven’t been free from interpretative selection have they? I’d agree the Bible is THE given but beyond that a Lectionary is (however wisely put together…or not) a mere human construction.

      And in years of listening it hasn’t been my experience that a Lectionary even focuses some preachers on the passage in front of them. Agendas can out themselves whatever the starting point….

  3. David Shepherd October 11, 2017 at 7:47 am #

    ‘ The idea of spiritual nutrition, asking what it means to live ‘not by bread alone, but every word that comes from the mouth of God.’

    For the Israelites, God led them through a wilderness which lacked self-sustaining natural resources, forcing them to rely on God’s daily miracle to feed them.

    So, what does it mean for a church to abandon the safe, predictable self-sufficiency of its current means to become, as the hymn goes, ‘pilgrim through a barren land’?

    What kinds of unexpected deprivations would a parish be willing to encounter in journeying into uncharted new territories of mission with the desperate plea: ‘Bread from heaven, Bread from heaven, feed me till I want no more! Feed me till I want no more’?

    Or are we only happy to graze in verdant pasture: chewing the cud of repeatedly regurgitated cycles of predictable routine?

    Pasture and wilderness represent contrasting environments of abundance and deprivation. The Lord who ‘makes me lie down in green pastures’ and ‘leads me beside quiet waters’ also leads me into the wilderness.

    As a disciple of Christ, Paul embraced both environments when he wrote: ‘I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.’ (Phil. 4:11-13)

    Of course, Jesus is the epitome of this path of ever-enduring supernatural abundance in the midst of earthly deprivation: ‘During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.’ (Heb. 5:7-9)

  4. Steve Walton November 4, 2017 at 2:38 pm #

    Thanks for sharing this Ian—this looks v helpful. Ali may steal and adapt it.

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