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Students at commencement

Biblical Preaching

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd

Location: Buena Park, Calif.
Denomination: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)
Size: 244 baptized, 225 confirmed; average at worship 65-74

 Download Church of the Good Shepherd's VCP report or see report contents below:

Ministry context

We are located in a mature community in north Orange County California only one block from Knotts Berry Farm. Our demographic directly around the church indicates only about 20% have a Bachelor's or Master’s degree. About 30% are married couples with children, 23% are non-family households, and 11% are single family households. Ethnically we are very diverse with 57.4% Anglo, 33.5% Hispanic, 22.7% Asian, and only 4.5% African-American according to the most recent data for the city of Buena Park, Calif. Economically about 50% earn incomes of between $30-75k while about 25% earn between $75–150k and around 30% earn less than $30,000.

The congregation does not have many young families that attend regularly as pointed out by surveys and interviews for this project. The majority of regular attenders are over 61 years of age. If our young families who are members now would come we would have more than 20 children in Sunday school and at least one-third of the congregation would younger than forty. At one time the congregation used to worship around 1,000 on Sunday morning, but due to demographic and economic changes in the community many moved away. The congregation currently does not reflect the surrounding demographic. Even though current attendance is low for the size of the campus the congregation has done a good job of handling its finances in the past and is currently mortgage free.

Pre-existing practices

1. Bible Studies

Numerous Bible studies have been offered over the past three years with the current Bible study being called "Working in the Word." This Bible study meets each Tuesday morning at 11:30 am with between 10 – 15 people in attendance. Each week the study is on the lectionary text assigned to the next Sunday in question. The study focus is generally on the gospel for the week and it includes a reading of the text and then a lively and deep discussion about what is God doing in this text. What is God communicating through the text, what do we like or don’t like about the text, and what principles can we take away that influence our Christian life going forward.

2. Preschool Program

Good Shepherd has a vibrant and active preschool that has a developmental, play oriented based preschool program. Two chapel times are offered each week with all the children attending and Bible stories are the basis for each chapel event. The Preschool Director has a strong sense of creating an environment where spiritual formation can take place in young children in a very positive manner.

3. Seasonal Programming  

There is a strong tradition of seasonal programming that follows the liturgical calendar. Advent and Lenten services are important and typically well attended. The services tend to be unusual, have a strong biblical base, and usually offer time for study, reflection, and contemplation.

4. WELCA Support  

Women of the ELCA is an active and involved group at Good Shepherd. They support many of the ministry and mission efforts as well as lead many ministry activities. They have strong leadership, do regular Bible studies, and allow biblical principles to influence all that they do in ministry.

5. Vacation Bible School  

Over the past few years Vacation Bible School (VBS) has been an important element in community outreach and in bringing some of the young families with children back to Good Shepherd. VBS is a fun time for children and families and last year it was offered from 5 - 8 p.m., which brought out many more children than expected. There were 105 children registered for the VBS program.

Discoveries from listening process

1. People Want to Connect with Scripture

People want to connect with scripture; they want it to be relevant in their daily lives. When people listen to a sermon they want it to not only be biblically accurate, but they want it to engage their soul in such a way that it influences the way they live during the week. People want not only the context, but they want the principles that are exhumed, that are unearthed to be brought into the 21st century world. They like to hear stories that make these principles or ideas concrete in our current world. However, that said, some do not hold with the sermon being the most important part of the worship experience.

2. Sermon Approaches

There is no one sermon or one method of preaching that connects every time and differing points of view and differing expectations seem to be the norm. Most agree that having sermons that are well researched and comprehensive are good, but moving beyond the intellectual is essential for them to connect with the message. Some like video clips; some do not. Some like participative type preaching and some do not. Some find the current preaching deep and meaningful and some do not. Perhaps an important take away is that no single style, approach, method or type of delivery is the perfect for everyone. The Holy Spirit plays an important role in taking God’s message from the printed page to the open heart.

3. Congregation Dynamics

It wasn’t much of a surprise, but most regular worshipers are 60 or above in age. This was evident from the pool of folks taking the survey and from those who were interviewed. It was also discovered that most of the congregation who worship regularly have been members for long periods of time, many for 30 plus years. What is not known about this discovery is, are we good at hospitality and not so good at attracting and keeping new members after they visit? Is there another dynamic at work here?

4. Personal Stories/Sharing of Experiences in Sermons

Stories in sermons make a difference as people relate their own story to the biblical story. It was pointed out that personal story and sharing of experience is important when talking about scriptural ideas and principles. The more people hear stories from scripture the more they can see how these stories parallel stories in their own lives. If the story comes alive and they connect it with their own story the more they can relate to it and the more it gives deeper meaning to their lives.

5. Congregational Size during Worship

Size matters, we have a sanctuary that can seat almost 450 people, but we worship 50 – 80 on Sunday morning. When people sit with wide degrees of separation it’s hard for them to be closely connected in such a large building. Preaching from the floor, not in the pulpit is positive for some and negative for others. It’s hard to have people share with one another if they do not sit in close proximity to one another. Certain methods used to get people to participate lose their effectiveness when people sit great distances apart.

Opportunities for growth

1. Method of Sermon Delivery  

Holding people’s attention, even for twenty minutes is difficult in a mature and aging congregation, so the length of sermons may need to be adjusted to meet the needs of an older congregation. No one method of delivery suits everyone; some strongly prefer one over the other. Being creative in approach and using differing methods of delivery will be required going forward. Existing A/V system is limited in capability and has many audio challenges regard clarity.

2. Help People Engage Scripture

Bringing people into the biblical text, having them participate in the discovery of God’s principles for living will require special attention be paid to asking questions and soliciting a response. Perhaps helping people walk through the story physically may be a way of bringing them into the story. Helping people engage with scripture through preaching requires creativity, enthusiasm, and energy.

3. Develop Personal Story within Sermons

Personal story seems to resonate with many in the congregation. Paying attention to story and using story to help people relate to the biblical message requires deep preparation, practice, and reducing the reliance on notes while preaching. Developing personal story as a means of sharing ones faith is also difficult and this has not been a valued skill nurtured over the history of the church.

4. Size

Size matters and we have a small congregation that worships in a large sanctuary. Our challenge is to shrink the sanctuary, grow the congregation or reconfigure the worship space to make it more conducive to the size of the worshiping community. Closing off the back pews, taking out some of the back pews, or roping them off may need to be a consideration. Or growing the congregation, invite folks to worship, beat the bushes to bring new people on board; something needs to be done to address this.

5. Demographic

We lack the community demographic diversity within our faith community. Our preschool demographic seems to more closely match our surrounding community. Growing the congregation to match our preschool profile will require working more closely with the preschool and creating opportunities for the church and the preschool to interact. Getting to know the non-churched families that attend the preschool, offering incentives for them to engage with the church, and creating events to bring preschool families into the church will be required. Past efforts on this front have not worked.

Experiments undertaken

1. Improving the A/V System Capability within the Sanctuary

Audio and video Improvements – start $30,000 improvement project that will replace the existing system, speakers and add LCD monitors to enhance presenting the gospel in a creative way. Shorten sermons.

Audio clarity is critical especially in a mature population with many suffering from hearing loss. Better speakers that are focused directly into the audience with improve clarity. Also this will reduce noise, audio waves bouncing from wall to wall and that will improve clarity.

Adding some sound-deadening materials, pads for the pews, and possible baffling on the walls will reduce bounce within the sanctuary. Seeking feedback from the congregation once the new system in place will speak to the effectiveness of the changes.

2. Bringing People into the Biblical Text, Making it Come Alive

Using a more participative preaching style, seeking engagement from the congregation during the sermon, and being creative in presentation will help people interact with the biblical text in a deeper manner.

Using people to help tell the biblical story, having them act out parts of the text, doing small skits or dramas, and maybe having the congregation read the scripture the week before its being preached on will help.

When people encounter the biblical text in a first-hand manner they remember it, they better relate to it, and tend to live out the principles of the text in their own lives during the week.

The pastor must continue to evolve and the team will continue to solicit feedback formally and informally to determine what works and what is not working.

3. Personal Story Connects Peoples’ Stories with the Biblical Story

Encourage the use of personal story during preaching. Maybe ask people to share their own personal stories that are pertinent to a particular biblical text. Having them share their stories during the sermon or with one another as a part of the sermon. Offer a time of sharing during sermons.

People want to connect with biblical principles because it helps them live out these stories during the week. It also reinforces how God connects with us and how our stories intersect with God’s story for humanity. This makes our faith more alive and keeps us alive on our journey of faith.

Seeing this play out weekly or weakly will tell us if this is working or not. If there is significant resistance to this it may mean that a majority of people don’t find this approach effective or desirable.

4. Reconfiguring the Worship Space to Create Greater Worship Intimacy

Start a dialogue with the congregation about worship and how space influences a community’s sense of worship intimacy. Put together a plan that changes the space to better match or reflect a closer intimacy.

Studies show that people sitting all spread out in a large sanctuary have a hard time singing and there is less of a sense of connecting with one another because people are so spread out in the facility. Closeness breeds a sense of togetherness and a connectedness in spirit.

Progress in this area would include people sitting closer together either through instruction or space modification. Adding restrictions to some areas of the existing space may be required to move people in this direction.

5. Change Church Demographic to Reflect Community Demographic

First we need to build a sense of community where people know what our demographic is and why it’s important to mirror the community demographic in our local church. We are here to serve the community, but perhaps most do not recognize or understand the problem.

Its starts with education, it requires building a sense that we are here to serve the community, and it will require an internal attitudinal change. Churches are strongest when they reflect the community in which they operate and it allows for growth to occur. Our preschool better reflects the community demographic and our church should do the same.

Obviously one measure of effectiveness would be for our faith community to reflect our local demographic. Right now we are grossly out of balance. Data from the city of Buena Park website: