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Students at commencement

Biblical Preaching

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church

Location: Cohasset, Mass.
Denomination: Episcopal
Size: 140

Download St. Stephen's Episcopal's VCP report or see report contents below:

Ministry context
St. Stephen’s is a thriving Episcopal parish in a small town on the South Shore on the Massachusetts Bay. Cohasset is a middle- to upper-class suburb, ethnically homogenous (Caucasian). St. Stephen’s is a diverse parish when it comes to age and to theological outlook. The Godly Play children’s program has been at St. Stephen’s since the mid-1990s, and it has instilled in the parish a culture of wondering. St. Stephen’s is a very welcoming, warm place, with fantastic outreach and good fellowship programs. The worship is varied, broad, and respectfully informal. God is present at St. Stephen’s.
Pre-existing practices

1. Wednesday Bible Study

A small group (4-8 people) gathers after our Wednesday service to study a reading that the next Sunday’s preacher thinks he or she will preach on. The study opens with prayer and reading the lesson in three different translations. Also, each participant uses a different translation of the Bible so we can see what translation issues there might be in the passage. The group then reads a section of commentary about the passage, and then has a discussion. The study closes with prayer. The study is one hour long.

Often times we use commentary from WorkingPreacher.org, as it is timely and easy for parishioners who do not have extensive exegetical training to understand. Sometimes, we also adopt David Lose’s “Dear Working Preacher” for use as a commentary. Sometimes, the passage is so rich that we don’t even make it to the commentary. The Bible Study is a wonderful way for a small group to prepare for the next week’s sermon, and for the preacher to get ideas of where to go with the sermon from the people who will listen to it.

2. Biblical Preaching 

The priests at St. Stephen’s take seriously their role as biblical interpreters. The sermons are always based on a biblical passage (from the RCL), and the priests do not just pay lip service to the texts. They dig in and integrate the biblical interpretation into the sermon. The best sermons take that biblical interpretation and insert it into daily life.
Discoveries from listening process

1. Biblical Explanation

People look for biblical explanation in the sermon. They do not want the preacher to gloss over or sidestep the lesson, especially difficult ones. People enjoy hearing about a passage’s historical and narrative context, structure, and meaning. This matters because the people want the very thing that the preacher wants to give them. The next step, then, is giving them the tools and permission to be exegetes themselves.

2. Challenge/Connection to Life

People want the sermon both to challenge them and to be connected to their daily lives. If the sermon does not make this connection, then they wonder why they listened in the first place. This matters because it focuses the preacher’s understanding of his or her role in the preaching moment. The preacher needs to be both theological and practical. And the preacher needs to know about the lives of the people to whom he or she is preaching.

3. Hunger

People are hungry for encounters with the Word of God. This matters because it shows the importance of good, faithful preaching.

Opportunities for growth

1. The “Fork” Challenge 

A majority of respondents to the interviewers expressed their hunger for something (the proclaimed Word, encounter with God, assurance, etc.). What they did not express was their own responsibility in the preaching moment to be prepared listeners. The “Fork” Challenge identifies the need to help parishioners get ready to listen and help them understand that the more prepared they are, the more they will receive.

2. The “Time” Challenge

Too much busyness and activity is a big issue in this ministry context: parents running kids to all sorts of activities, people working long hours. This challenge intersects with preaching when the preacher gives “homework;” that is, a specific task or practice for the coming week. The challenge is helping people reorder their priorities so that they have more time for the relationship with God, which, in the long run, will help them with the challenge as a whole.
Experiments undertaken

1. The Sermon: Director’s Cut 

Begun in January, 2012, “The Sermon: Director’s Cut” is a new Sunday morning Bible study designed to supplement and expand the sermon preached in the service. The preacher leads the study, which looks at things that “fell to the cutting room floor” during sermon prep. As such, Director’s Cut gives multiple angles to the text, while the sermon itself examines only one.

Director’s Cut offers more time with the Bible, which is always a good thing. Since it falls between our two services, the folks who have already heard the sermon can come for more info, while the people who have yet to hear it can come to get prepared.

The good thing about Director’s Cut is that it is very little extra work for the preacher. If the preacher is preparing the sermon using biblical and scholarly resources, there will be fodder for the class left over when the sermon is done.

2. Grace Notes

The Episcopal Church does not have a tradition of taking notes during the sermon. We are going to change that with “Grace Notes,” which are pads of paper in the pews, specifically placed there for people to write down things that strike them during the sermon.

Oftentimes, a preacher will say something that we want to remember, but with everything going on in our heads, we forget more often than not. Grace Notes will help us to keep those things with us. If you do this, make sure to put pencils rather than pens in the pews. Using pens just asks for your pews to get drawn all over by little ones.

3. 10 Lenses for Encountering the Word of God

Coming this summer, “10 Lenses” is an introduction to biblical hermeneutics for lay people (thus, we will not be using the word “hermeneutics”). The class will be run online on our website, considering so many people go away for the summer. Each class will focus on one simple, basic piece of biblical interpretation; for example, how do you pick out a passage to study, which translation of the bible should I read, etc.

“10 Lenses” will help give the lay person the tools and permission to become biblical interpreters for themselves, thus taking the preacher out of the “vaunted expert” role. Starting at the end of June 2012, you can participate in 10 Lenses on ststephenscohasset.org.